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Gerbil beats mouse in class

TECHNOLOGY may be the tool of the 21st century but it's not cuddly. Now there's a determined campaign to prove that the classroom pet is better for children than the computer mouse.

Social workers, health professionals and veterinary surgeons are convinced that pets in the classroom are educationally beneficial.

And the charity they support believes that animals - be they cat, hamster, gerbil, stick insect or even snake - play a positive role in teaching social skills.

Kay McKinney, a Manchester primary teacher, said: "Sometimes the affection of the pet is the only warmth a child has.

"The pet provides unconditional love - it doesn't know that you can't read or have been fighting. The pet will never leave you for another friend or call you names."

New guidelines issued by the Society for Companion Animal Studies - whose patrons inlude Desmond Morris, author of The Human Ape - provide practical advice on keeping pets in schools.

The national curriculum recommends that children learn the lessons of taking and sharing responsibility by looking after animals well.

A study of 37 schools in Australia has found that the presence of cats in the classroom not only improved children's awareness of responsible pet ownership but improved the general atmosphere.

It discovered that the cats had led to a dramatic revival of enthusiasm for school, and modified disruptive behaviour.

"Many school communities are enriched by ... introducing pets into schools in a number of imaginative and practical ways," said the society.

"Pet clubs, pet assemblies or pet days can help to nurture a sense of reverence. Pets can also provide a fun route into many curriculum areas."

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