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School pets

Your weekly guide to a whole-school issue

Animals can teach children about human behaviour and body language, about parenting skills and social responsibility. Learning to care for an animal is often their first step towards learning to care for others. But if you decide to keep a pet at school, how can you ensure it's well looked after? And is it a good idea at all? The RSPCA believes not; others claim animals in the classroom have a range of positive benefits.

Why get a classroom pet?

Death and babies are two of the most difficult subjects for teachers. Having an animal living its comparatively short life cycle in the classroom is a good way to explain to curious children some of life's big questions. But pets can also help in other ways. They teach children responsibility; rather than pulling the wings off an insect, they have to try feeding, watering and warming it. The International Association of Human-Animal Interaction, meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last year to discuss the role animals could play in schools, concluded that they "encourage the moral, spiritual and personal development of each child".

Regular contact with animals has also been shown to make children calmer, better able to concentrate and more co-operative. A study of 37 urban and rural elementary schools in Australia found that pets not only increased class cohesiveness but also generated a calm, orderly environment, modified disruptive behaviour and reduced friction.

Animals are the secret weapon for Green Chimneys school in New York, which has been dealing successfully for more than 50 years with pupils from troubled backgrounds, most of whom have been involved in gang warfare and drug dealing. Each of its 300 pupils is assigned an animal. "These children won't talk to therapists, they just won't speak," explains Elizabeth Omerod, chairperson of the Society for Companion Animal Studies, a group set up in 1979 to promote awareness and understanding of human-animal relationships. "But they form a bond with the animals - and then they talk to them. Once they've spoken to the animals they find it easier to talk to the therapist."

Nor is it just behaviour that can be improved. A recent study from the University of Warwick found that pets can even make children healthier by stimulating the immune system - children with pets were recorded as being in school nine days a year more than those without.

Before you take the plunge...

Just like getting a pet at home, the decision to bring an animal into the classroom should not be taken lightly. Just because you and your class can survive in a small, draughty temporary hut, it doesn't mean an animal can. The RSPCA is so concerned about the conditions some school pets are expected to endure that they would like to see them banned. "We're absolutely against the idea of having live animals in a classroom," says a spokesperson. "It's a difficult environment; difficult to provide for the needs of the animal."

If you choose to go ahead, check the society's stringent guidelines before you start (see Resources) and be clear about what the pet is for. Don't get an animal just to make yourself popular or because you know of a rabbit needing a good home. Getting a pet should be about sharing your love of animals and demonstrating responsible ownership. It's not fair to the animal to have half-hearted and reluctant care. "You have to be committed; the very worst thing you can do is have a classroom pet and then not care for it. That sends out absolutely the wrong message," says Elizabeth Omerod.

While most pets are likely to be cheap to buy, the cost of bowls, cages, bedding and food can add up. Vets' bills are rising by an average of 11 per cent a year and pet insurance starts at around pound;5 a month. These costs may not be in the school budget, and school fundraising may have other priorities - are you willing to foot the bills yourself?

And a pet will mean extra work. As the responsible adult, you will be in charge of feeding, cleaning and holiday care, as well as integrating it into lessons. You may well get help from keen pupils, but it's best to assume it'll all be up to you.

You've decided to get a pet - but what kind?

Ironically, animals best suited to humans - cats and dogs - are the least practical for the classroom. The best school pets are those that can be contained in cages, that can exercise themselves and that are happy to be left alone outside school hours.

Birds and rabbits are poor candidates because they tend to be sensitive to noise and lack of space. Rabbits are social animals and are best kept in groups. Reptiles need special conditions and careful handling. They are intolerant of temperature changes, have particular diets and can introduce salmonella bacteria into the classroom. And keeping wildlife as pets is generally illegal.

Guinea pigs are one of the best choices - when they're properly socialised they enjoy being handled and rarely bite. They are also larger than gerbils, hamsters and mice, which can be more easily harmed by over-zealous handling. And they are awake during the day. Choosing nocturnal mammals, such as hamsters, will mean you miss most of the action, or they become unsettled and prone to biting because they are woken unnaturally.

For easy maintenance, try fish, worms or stick insects. They're also cheap and don't need much space. But after the initial excitement of getting set up, children can find them dull and are unlikely to learn many of the facts of life from watching them.

Where do I get my pet?

Talk to local vets about good suppliers. Any pet brought into the classroom should come from a reputable dealer. This cannot be overemphasised. Animals can carry a host of parasites and diseases - those bought from dealers are usually bred in captivity and have regular health checks. A good pet dealer will also be an important source of support and information for getting your pet settled in. And before buying your animal, make sure you handle it - if you need to don steel gloves, it's unlikely to enjoy the attentions of a class of curious children.

"It's about choosing the right animal for your situation," says Elizabeth Omerod. "That doesn't just mean the right species, it means the right individual animal. Have it at home with you for a few days before taking it into school, so you can be familiar with its behaviour."

Is it hygienic to have a pet in the classroom?

Yes - as long as you follow basic rules for cleaning and husbandry, and make sure children wash their hands after handling. But there are other health issues to be aware of. Some animals, such as cats, birds, rabbits and small rodents - as well as the woodchip bedding often recommended for them - are highly allergenic. The number of people showing allergic symptoms to animals - sneezing, hives, skin reactions or breathing difficulties - is increasing, and you need to know how to cope with this kind of reaction. If an animal is housed in the classroom, it is your responsibility to ensure none of the pupils is allergic; this may mean organising parental consent forms.

Although most of us are immune to diseases carried by domestic animals, any children with suppressed immune systems have an increased risk of infection. These include transplant patients, leukaemia or cancer patients, anyone who is HIV-positive and some people with asthma and skin conditions. In such cases, it's probably best to talk with parents and doctors. And all animals, no matter how tame, can bite, scratch or peck when handled. Have a plan for any injuries and teach children to be gentle.

What about weekends and holidays?

Some animals can be left over the weekend or for longer periods - fish, for example, can survive on special long-lasting food pellets. But most animals will need care, and the riskiest time for a pet is when it goes home with a family for the holidays. Injuries and deaths are common from neglect, or jealous and undisciplined pets already with the family. If you don't take the pet home yourself, be certain that the family that does is committed and knows enough to givethe right care. Comprehensive written guidelines for holiday arrangements should include advice on recognising illness and agreement about who is responsible for costs, including vets' bills.

Mews or muse?

Once you've got your pet, you can make it sing for its supper. As well as providing general environmental education, pets can be used creatively in many curriculum areas. Science at key stages 1 and 2 offers a range of opportunities for using your furry friend. For example, soundand hearing (Year 1); health and growth (Year 2); moving and growing (Year 3); life cycles (Year 5); and interdependence and adaptation (Year 6).

Researching and interpreting data on the cost of keeping pets can form the basis of a maths project, and being able to watch an animal at close quarters stimulates creative work such as art, essays, poems and drama. A classroom pet can also be used as a metaphor for humans, allowing you to handle aspects of personal and social education - such as health, safety and behaviour - in an immediate and non-threatening way. Using pets in the curriculum has been shown to be particularly effective with low achievers and withdrawn children. There may be ancient reasons for this. The biophilia hypothesis formulated by Edward Wilson of Harvard University in 1984 - and still accepted - argues that we have an instinctive interest in animals; early man needed to know as much as possible about animals to hunt effectively, so an innate need to know about animal behaviour has remained a part of human programming. Wilson's theory is that using animals to teach parts of the curriculum raises children's level of interest and triggers important learning techniques.

Stick insects are not enough Some schools take the challenge of caring for animals extremely seriously. The Warriner school farm is a mixed 48-hectare farm in Bloxham, north Oxfordshire, with a herd of Dexter cattle, 90 ewes, eight pigs, half a dozen anglo-nubian goats, chickens and working horses. This comprehensive also takes children: 11 to 16-year-olds from Banbury. The school sits alongside the farm - there is even an onsite classroom - so the children can spend a lot of time with the animals, and farm manager John Hirons teaches a 50 per cent timetable.

"Lots of people help out at lunchtimes and after school, especially at busy times like lambing season," says farm technician Isabel Hands. "We went organic in 2001 so we can teach children about conservation and sustainability, as well as some of the basics - many pupils think milk comes in a plastic carton from Tesco. When they first see it come out of a teat they go, 'Urgh! Disgusting!' But it's important they learn about where our food comes from."

And there's a GCSE in rural science for those who want to prove they've mastered mucking out, ringing lambs' tails, milking cows and trimming cattle hooves.

What if I don't want a pet?

Children need to learn about animals, but it's perfectly possible to do that using soft toys, photographs and videos, says the RSPCA. Certainly, books, magazines and videos can be a starting point as long as they give accurate information, and the internet offers everything from live webcam footage of puppies playing to breeding details about mole rats. Asking children to bring pets from home for a pets' assembly or having a regular classroom visit from a trusted animal mascot are also simple ways of using pets that require no long-term planning or commitment.

The RSPCA suggests using field trips to parks, wildlife centres or local animal shelters as a humane alternative to having pets in the classroom, encouraging children to appreciate animals as part of a natural habitat. And the UK's network of wildlife trusts can offer advice on planting a butterfly garden or building a bird feed station. Or you can spend the money you might have put aside for a deluxe hamster wheel on adopting a manatee, Siberian tiger or blue whale. Many international animal protection organisations have adoption programmes for endangered species and in return for your sponsorship you get updated information, photographs and a resource pack. Or, if that seems too exotic, it's likely that your local animal shelter or wildlife centre will run a similar programme for more familiar native species or abandoned farm animals.

Did you know?

* Regular contact with animals makes children calmer, better able to concentrate, more co-operative and healthier. A University of Warwick study found that children with pets are in school nine days a year more than those without

* The RSPCA says school pets should be banned as too many live in appalling conditions

* Nocturnal mammals, such as hamsters, are a mistake in the classroom. You'll miss most of the action, and they may become prone to biting because they're woken unnaturally

* Guidelines for holiday arrangements should include advice on recognising illness and agreement about who is responsible for costs, including vets'

bills - which are rising by an average of 11 per cent a year

Main text: Steven Hastings. Picturs: Corbis, Ardea, Getty, FLPA. Additional research: Tracey Thomas. Next week: Bereavement

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