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Target practice for 8-year-olds banned

Shooting lessons for children as young as eight are to be banned by a local education authority.

The ban at Staffordshire council's two outdoor education centres was being introduced because of the Dunblane tragedy, a council spokesman said.

He stressed that it was not as a direct result of a parent complaining that her eight-year-old daughter was offered target air rifle shooting on a residential course at Stanley Head outdoor education centre, Stoke-on-Trent.

The parent, who wishes to remain anonymous, complained to The TES that children were young enough to take their teddy bears along, but apparently deemed old enough to learn to shoot.

The shooting practice involved 32 eight and nine-year-old children from Betley Church of England primary school, near Crewe.

Andrew Warren, Betley's headteacher, said there were a lot of gun clubs in the area, and the school wanted children to understand the rules of safety and responsibility when handling guns, and the skills of hand-eye co-ordination and concentration.

As well as shooting, the children tried map-reading, orienteering, dry skiing, and climbing. Two children whose parents objected to shooting did archery instead.

Mr Warren said that many of the children had excelled at shooting practice, many had enjoyed it, and one or two pupils lacking in confidence had found a sport they were good at.

The school would never have considered incorporating shooting if it had thought the eight and nine-year-olds were not intelligent enough to cope with it, he said.

But Mr Warren, who was speaking only hours before Staffordshire announced its shooting ban, said: "Eight possibly is too young. Having done the activity, and on reflection, I would not do it again. I would hate to see the school flying in the face of the terrible tragedy of Dunblane."

This week, the National Small Bore Rifle Association said target shooting was the second most popular sport after fishing, and was a common activity at residential centres for schoolchildren.

However, the association's development officer, Geoff Doe, conceded: "Eight years old is not unusual, but it is at the lower end of the age scale."

Mr Doe, who has been shooting since he was five, said: "If you ignore Hollywood and the media, 99 per cent of shooting is done by ordinary people using single-shot firearms aiming at a black mark with a series of rings to try to score as highly as possible. It's no different from slogging a golf ball off a tee and getting it down a hole."

Geoff Cooper, head of centre at Low Bank Ground outdoor education centre at Coniston in Cumbria, said, however: "There's no way we would do anything connected with guns here. It cuts across everything we stand for. There are so many other good activities which harmonise with the environment and are not aggressive."

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