Mike 'Mikeability' Blakeman on creating a cycling ethos in school
8 December 2023
Mike, a former teacher, known affectionately as ‘Mikeability’ for his personal dedication to delivering cycle training, took time out of his busy schedule to chat to us about creating a cycle ethos in a school and how the skills that children develop during Bikeability Scotland reach far beyond cycling.
Mike Blakeman of Dumfries and Galloway Active Schools was presented with the Bikeability Scotland ‘Instructor of the Year’ award in recognition of his success in delivering fully inclusive and engaging training throughout the year.
My name is Mike Blakeman and I won the Cycling Scotland [Bikeability Scotland] instructor of the Year Award this year which I'm very proud of and flattered by. I live in Galloway, a beautiful place to live and to cycle, and I teach Bikeability locally across the whole of Dumfries and Galloway. I might be over in Dumfries in the east or down in Stranraer right in the west, so it's quite a big area.
I retired as a primary school teacher about 18 months ago, and we'd already moved up to Dumfries and Galloway from Coventry, where I taught for 20 years. We're very lucky in Gatehouse of Fleet, we have a cycling cooperative called Wheels of Fleet and we joined straightaway to volunteer. I now work 10 hours a week for them, as well as with local children cycling and in school.
I managed to get on the Bikeability Instructors course - the one-day course - through Wheels of Fleet, which was excellent. And within a couple of months, the Cycle Trainer course came up in Castle Douglas, which was a three-day course, and I was already volunteering for Bikeability in local schools at that point. Doing the three-day course gave me a lot more skills and confidence and it allowed me to apply for a job with the Active Travel Team at Dumfries and Galloway Council, which I did. Since then I've been a paid instructor for a year now. It's brilliant. I really enjoy it.
I'd retired. I'd got my teachers pension coming in, but I wanted to get back into schools and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go in as a casual teacher or a supply teacher. To get in there and teach cycling, which is an absolute passion of mine, was just the perfect combination. Perfect for me, and it keeps my connection [to schools]. I don't see myself as not being a teacher now, just because I've retired. I'm still a teacher, but at the moment it is through cycling. It's just perfect. I couldn't have imagined it when I left Coventry about 18 months ago, that it would have fallen into place like this.
When I left school, I became an engineer. I did a milk round for six years. I worked in various factories. I worked in hospitality, bringing up three children, doing as many jobs as I could. And nothing ever gave me real satisfaction until I became a single parent my mid-30s. and did my A levels, my teaching degree, and it's just the best thing ever. I just love the connection with the children, the positivity. They'll just tell you what they think, and they take onboard anything that you're teaching them. They might not do it every time but it's just an incredibly positive environment.
I managed to get into 18 schools last year to teach Bikeability. It was a really nice way to understand Dumfries and Galloway as a new place to live and somewhere to settle. You learn a lot from schools, through children and parents and staff. I've really enjoyed that. Next week, I'm all the way down in Stranraer, which is good hour's drive, for the day, and I'm teaching at the Gatehouse School, which is two minutes over the bridge, and Minnigaff at Newton Stewart and Kirkcudbright Primary. We've got a whole day there for the next five weeks with the P7s.
I think it works well to teach it within school and it creates an ethos in the school of cycling and outdoor activities. We generally do it over four or five weeks. I've always been flexible with it. Some of the smaller schools, that were a long journey away, we did in a day because it was only a small group. And that was a different way of doing it. Doing all Level 2 across the day and finishing with a nice group ride out.
You get a whole class of children, a group of children, and you are riding out together. You just listen to the chat amongst the group. I've done things like this myself as a class teacher. You've taken that desk away and different things happen, and it can be really positive. We've had younger children coming up [saying], "When is it our turn? When are we doing Bikeability?" "Well you're P2 at the moment, so a couple of years. It'll happen, and it's something to look forward to." It's a progression through the school, and on a Friday for them to get their certificates and badges in assembly together, that works really well.
On my first week, rather than going in cold and just doing the bike checks, I thought I should be introducing this to the school and to the children and reassuring people. We went to Belmont School in Stranraer last year, and we had 11 children, out of over 40, doing Bikeability. I spoke to the school over the summer and when I did the bike checks, I went in to do an assembly for P6, and P7. We've just done our Level 1 there and we had 42 children doing it this time. There were an awful lot of children that wouldn't have done it, or weren't sure, or maybe one of the cool kids in the class didn't want to do it. So they thought, well, I'll align myself to them. But once they understood what it was, they're really enthusiastic for it.
We lost one day at Minnigaff through snow and ice on the roads, but we've been in all weathers. We've been out there and there's never a complaint from them. They just love being on their bikes and being outside. Some of the comments from children are, "I'm so happy because I've got something to look forward to on Tuesdays now", and you feel guilty, then when you leave after five weeks.
There’re anxieties, but once you reassure them and show them some clips of what it's going to be like, [it’s fine]. The fact, there'll be two instructors and we'll be riding, and you'll always be in-between us, and we'll be supporting you. It's quite nerve wracking for them to go out on the roads and cycle.
I really love when you're riding around the village or a town with the group and everyone's waving at them. "There's my pappa or there's my...", you know? "That's my mum's friend, and oh, that's the neighbour's dog out for a walk."
I just like to give them an outlook of cycling. What it can lead to as a sport, or a hobby, or cycling to work and schools, or just round the block or to the shop. I live in Gatehouse, and I teach at the primary school here Bikeability and I work for Wheels of Fleet. So we have a junior and senior Bike Club. It's amazing when we do Bikeability in the school, and they've done the ride out with us and they're more confident. Suddenly we have more children that want to join our weekend juniors or seniors club. Last week we did a ride down to Sandgreen along the beach, on the gravel track with children from eight up to fifteen and a few parents tagged on. They wouldn't necessarily have done that before we'd done the Bikeability with them and given them more confidence.
I've spoken to a few parents who are just not confident. Through Gatehouse we've managed to take them out and we do a weekly bike bus to school on a Friday, so we get them to join. That's in Gatehouse. You don't have that everywhere. It's lovely when a parent will come and say, "Oh, we did a little ride on Sunday, because so and so said that you said there was a nice safe ride here." You are thinking well, you've got a family going out for a little ride for an hour on the weekend that they don't normally do. That's great. That's brilliant. I think it does encourage them to ride more.
I enjoy going in, meeting a new group, doing my PowerPoint, showing a few clips, and then meeting them all on their own to check their bikes over and hearing their little stories. There was a girl two weeks ago, and I said her bike was a little bit small for her and it was very, very old. And I said, "Oh, that's such a nice wee bike you've got there." "Aye”, she said, "It's been through the generations in our family, I can tell you." And I said, "But that's brilliant. That's what bikes are for, and it's great that so many people have used it." "I'm getting a new one for Christmas." she said. "That one's done you well and a lot of your family obviously".
I always do about 100 miles a week on my bike standard, because that keeps me happy and sane and reasonably fit. I've certainly got the energy for the teaching side still. It just happened to be the right thing at the right time and it's quite lucky really. It's only been just over a year. This time last year I just started to volunteer at a couple of schools. It's grown quickly.
I've just made a new bike limbo kit because they broke our other one. A couple of broomsticks and a rounders post base and I drilled some holes and put some dowel pins in and a nice bar because they really enjoy the challenge of that. Level 2 and you're out on the roads. There's only so much you can do. But for Level 1 I like to bring in lots of different games in the playground because we've got some really exciting games that the children have helped to make up and I can share with other schools.
It's worthwhile, you can see. It’s measurable. It's not on a pie chart, or a bar graph, like the government like to see in schools, and they like to see their percentages and everything. You can just see it in their reaction, you can see it as their confidence grows, and seeing what the teachers say. It's nice to work the afternoon groups when you get to meet parents as well afterwards. We were teaching down at Sandhead Primary, just along by the beach and there's quite a long hill up to the school and we're riding up the hill and I've got a girl in front of me who hadn't ridden before much. She had managed to get through the whole five weeks, and her mum was following us in the car. She was saying, "We've tried to teach her down the track, and she just wouldn't, but an hour in the playground with somebody different." And then she said, "I can't believe she was riding up that hill with the group." That was nice.
You can use cycling to give them that bit of confidence or encouragement. You get some children saying, "I just don't want to do it because I'm not very good on a bike." "You don't need to be very good. We can help you to improve. We'll be there with you. We'll go out on the road.". And they'll be out on the road and they're achieving things. And I'll pull them aside and say, "You said to me, you were not going to do this. If you can do this, there'll be loads of things in your life as an adult and growing up, that you'll think, oh, and you'll have a little flashback to Bikeability and you can think, I so didn't want to do that. And then I loved it when I achieved it and overcame all my fears. We won't see all that, but we know it's going to happen in the future.
Music by Birds for Scale