School Matters with Dennis Richards OBE: When the wheels came off, the dream ended

Last week I rode my bike for the fourth and last time. I never mastered the gears. I finally concede that I will never be Bradley Wiggins (pictured above during the Tour de Yorkshire).

Last week I rode my bike for the fourth and last time. I never mastered the gears. I finally concede that I will never be Bradley Wiggins (pictured above during the Tour de Yorkshire).

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I’ve sold my bike. It’s the end of a dream. When Tony Blair’s government published the document “Every Child Matters” in 2003, they gave us a document which has defined secondary education for the past decade and more.

It shows no sign of falling out of date. It probably never will. And that, believe you me, is as rare as a popular Ofsted inspector.

After a series of catastrophic accidents on outdoor education ventures, which exposed sloppy safety procedures in Britain’s schools, the document left heads and governors in no room for doubt. Safety is the top priority. That much was pretty obvious. But the second priority was something of a surprise.

For years, school dinners had been the stuff of stand-up comedy… roly poly pudding, sago, semolina, swede and the rest. It was an accepted truth that children wanted chips with everything and they hated Brussels sprouts.

It was a doctrine I accepted and knew at first hand. Daughter Clare was left on her own in the dining room, aged five, with no release allowed, until she had downed the dreaded sprouts. Cue tears and histrionics.

After 10 minutes all goes quiet and a subdued little voice announces that her plate is clean. And so it is.

Some two weeks later an increasingly malodorous whiff emanating from the said dining room makes us think of blocked drains and sending for the plumber.

You would not believe what an assault on the sense of smell can come from Brussels sprouts, concealed and left to rot under a piano. And now we were being told to take on the healthy eating battle in schools.

That was the half of it.

The other half was to force the idle so-and-so’s to take some exercise. An A* in almost anything might be a useful qualification to have, but if you have slobbed your way into obesity at a dangerously young age, it might just be a waste of time.

As with most agendas in schools the head teacher feels obliged to lead from the front. Even the ageing ones.

A passionate assembly extolling the virtues of physical exercise does not look all that convincing, if you are having to wheeze your way through it, having insisted on parking your car next to the school’s front door, to avoid walking more than 20 yards.

And so it came to be that there were rumours that the Grand Depart of the Tour de France would be coming to Yorkshire… that Harrogate’s twin town in the Pyrenees is the “theatre of dreams” for serious cyclists.

The list of our school trips included, for the first time that year, a 226 km Coast-to-Coast cycling odyssey.

Exhaustive research and advice leads me to purchase an ultra-light sleek racing machine bearing the name of Chris Boardman. Wisely I sign up for one leg of the route only, and join the troops speeding along the country lanes near Ripon. By West Tanfield, I am in agony. I am not out of breath, I have pulled no muscles. The long and short of it…. or more appropriately, the top and bottom of it….is the saddle.

I am being rapidly cut in half, sitting on what feels like a roller blade. I drop out well before Masham, having completed less than 10km.

Fortunately I have pre-arranged an “emergency call” from school, should such an eventuality arise.

I do not abandon my cycling career. Further research leads me to purchase a replacement saddle. It makes little difference. I am told you can buy padded cycling leggings.

Somebody else suggests a rolled up towel as well.

With all this in place, the look from the rear is not a good one. Last week I rode my bike for the fourth and last time. I never mastered the gears.

Where is a Sturmey-Archer three-speed on the crossbar when you need it?

The derailleur was the height of technical innovation when last I pedalled the roads.

Apparently, I now have 24 gears to choose from, mysteriously concealed in the handlebars, alongside the brakes. The pit falls are only too obvious. And the pedals!

Equipped with cleats, whatever they are, I arrive back on the drive to find I cannot release my feet. Fortunately a survival instinct has led me to stop next to the flower bed, into which I slowly and painfully subside. I finally concede that I will never be Bradley Wiggins.

Around Harrogate every day you will see scores of cyclists and joggers pounding the roads. The first “Every Child Matters” generations are now well into their twenties and thirties.

The schools’ efforts are slowly beginning to bear fruit. The real reason for “Every Child Matters” longevity? It joyously affirms that “enjoyment is the birth right of every child”.

You have to laugh. Even when it hurts.