Thanks to a well-orchestrated partnership between class teacher Margaret Bullen and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's regional education officer, Sue O'Gara, these tiny children are enjoying a depth of understanding of what animal welfare really is all about that would put many adults to shame. They learn that animal welfare is a value system that goes beyond veal crates and vegetarianism.
However, the lessons are put across in a way that emphasises the fun over the seriousness. While Margaret Bullen has devised cross-curricular topic work on animals for most of the year so far, she has called on the specialist support of the RSPCA to augment her own programme of activities as well as give guidance and information. Sue O'Gara has spent a day a week for four weeks with Ms Bullen's class, taking leads from the work which preceded each of her visits.
This term, the group has been working on the topic of pets. Apart from the usual activity of children bringing in their pet guinea pigs and hamsters (and tarantulas and pythons - which proves that there's always one or two in every crowd, even in semi-rural Lancashire), the children helped design and then construct a vet's surgery in the home corner area, based on their first-hand evidence-gathering during a visit to the local vet's.
The vet's area is complete with waiting room (for which the children made the seating), recovery room (one child thoughtfully brought in a tin of dog food to put inside, for when the patient was feeling better) and an appointment book. They use a Fisher Price medical kit to examine the various stuffed animals that have been brought in for the purpose. They have made cages out of boxes, leads and collars out of cloth.
While the vet's area serves as a physical focal point for topic work, Ms Bullen has woven animals and animal welfare into the whole curriculum. The children have conducted interviews with the vet, a guide dog owner who came to visit and various pet owners. They have made interactive wall displays on animal-based stories for English. For technology, they have designed bird tables, mobiles and a computer for the vet's surgery. In maths, they have made sequential patterns on leads and collars to sell in the shop. Ms Bullen has even managed to work animals into religious education, generating discussions on wild birds and our responsibility to help feed them.
The RSPCA's involvement has been to support and widen the work. Sue O'Gara has shown the children a video on how oil spills during the Gulf War affected birds and wildlife and talked with them about how litter and rubbish wrongly disposed of in Britain can harm living things here, too.
The responsibilities of pet ownership is another dimension of the RSPCA's work. One graphic illustration was a friendly visit from a big, fluffy rabbit. Pretty to look at and soft to touch it undoubtedly was, but monitoring the waste that bunnykins produced over just half a day, graphically brought home to the children the labour-intensive, unpleasant realities of looking after an animal.
The RSPCA does not encourage schools to keep pets. A film Ms O'Gara shows the children is gentle with the imagery, while still managing to get the message across. An articulate hamster, stuck in a grotty cage in a classroom that is not geared to his nocturnal clock, talks about the life he would like to live and asks "how would you like it?" Ms O'Gara runs in-service training sessions on animal welfare for National Nursery Examination Board nursery nurses and teachers, workshops for youth workers and cub scout leaders. She helps develop teaching resource packs from early years up to sixth-form level. Her particular interest is in working on these issues with children and adults with special needs (she has an MEd in special needs) and she has set up a special needs working party in the RSPCA.
Ms O'Gara is one of 10 regional education officers in the country. She says: "Our whole approach is holistic, working with teachers and taking their lead. We don't come in with a fixed agenda."
RSPCA Education Department, Causeway, Horsham, West Sussex RH12 1HG
RSPCA - stand PV33