IN THESE health and safety conscious days, classrooms pets are largely a thing of the past. Sadly, too many schools are afraid of being sued if children are bitten by the animals or suffer asthma attacks, whilst many education authorities simply won’t risk liability.
But whilst the live-in classroom guinea pig or gerbil is declining and the visiting dog is on the rise. Residential pets in schools are not quite extinct but they’re certainly an endangered species. ‘Nature study is not as valued as it once was,’ says Elizabeth Ormerod, chairwoman of the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), a Blue Cross - affiliated charity concerned with the health benefits of animals for humans.
‘Animals in the classroom raise understandable concerns about health and safety, and animal welfare. But teachers often overlook the benefits. Pets help children develop self-esteem and learn how to nurture others. They learn that sacrifice must be made to care for those more vulnerable than you.’
But the RSPCA and Scottish SPCA advise against keeping animals in schools unless proper provisions are made for their well being. ‘What concerned us most was children taking pets home in the holidays and not taking proper care of them,’ says Vin Odey, head of education at the Scottish SPCA.
The Government offers no guidance about keeping pets in schools and the new Animal Welfare Act, which came into force on April 6, though placing a legal ‘duty of care’ on pet owners, has no schools-specific content – an obvious glaring omission. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights pressure group, wants to ban animals being kept in the classroom, saying it doesn’t teach children about their natural behaviour and environment. But the decision rests with local authorities or individual schools. Aberdeen Council, for example, banned school pets in 1997, though tropical fish were exempt. Other authorities have issued guidance, but for the most part, the decision rests with the individual headteacher.
Consequently, schools, mindful of animal welfare and human health and safety, are tending to favour the visiting pet over the residential one. ‘Visiting animal schemes, run by firms that charge to take animals into schools, vary in quality,’ says Vin. ‘In some cases we feel the animals are travelling far too much and are not getting the right care.’
But it does widen the range of animals that children come into contact with in class. Dogs seem to be the favourite. ‘They can teach children about inter-personal relationships,’ says Elizabeth. ‘Watching dogs fighting can make children reflect on the futility of squabbling. And dogs can even be role models of a sort. They don’t smoke, drink or take drugs, and they seem perfectly happy.
So why can’t humans?’