How should children be introduced to animals? Carolyn O'Grady visits two schools where cages are out and wildlife is in. Are caged rabbits and gerbils still acceptable in schools? Should we invite that local man with the python and monkey to visit? It is a sign of the times that some people are even asking whether animals are a legitimate focus of attention in schools at all, except in books and other media.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals report Animals and Education:Making your School Animal-Friendly, published last year, declares itself against many of the traditional activities involving animals in schools, but adds that "where feasible, (young people) should be given the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of animals . . . animal welfare can be taught in school without keeping animals captive".
Some of the RSPCA's dictates will strike many as harsh. It is opposed to travelling collections, which presumably includes those fascinating exhibits of large snakes, exotic spiders and other creatures from local zoos, which, as many teachers can confirm, children love. Neither does it like preserved specimens or historical collections, which "leads to a lack of respect and loss of dignity to the species concerned". Not surprisingly, dissection is opposed.
However, though not everyone will agree with the details, the ethos behind the report will strike a chord with many who feel uncomfortable at the sight of rabbits in small cages or wonder at the motives and methods of some visitors to schools who bring animals and birds with them.
So how should schools introduce children to animals? One way, of course, is to take school parties to wildlife reserves; the RSPCA's study centre at Mallydams Wood, near Hastings, for example, offers field work, day and residential courses and a range of multimedia materials. It also has An Animal Action Club during holidays. Elsewhere, schools are making their own arrangements, with some even creating their own wildlife areas.
St Leonard's, East Sussex As one of their many studies involving animals, the pupils of St Leonard's CE primary school, in St Leonard's, East Sussex, were recently asked to investigate the habitat needs of a variety of animals. This is how one thought the world would look to a vole: "I would feel safe if there was long grass, many log piles, brambles, water and some food. Important for me would be a long-grassed meadow, lots of cover from kestrels, some hedges to eat under and some log piles to scurry to quickly. All of these I found in the St Leonard's CE school nature area. So I decided to stay."
That a vole would come to this decision is not surprising, for St Leonard's has a nature reserve which would entice a multitude of grateful creatures: within its grounds is a wildlife area complete with pond, dipping platform, bramble cover and a meadow. Many animals have already found a home there.
Deep in the brambles are two badger setts, and badgers and foxes regularly cross the land; heritage trails (the name given to the paths traditionally used by these two mammals) can be seen indented in the long grass.
The school was offered the five acres by Hastings borough council in 1994, for a nominal sum on a five-year lease. Previously occupied by allotments, the land had fallen into disuse and became overgrown. Two years on, the project is far from complete but the brambled jungle is now a fairly accessible wildlife reserve. Paths have been cleared, and the pond, which in summer would disappear into the porous ground, has been lined. It is surrounded by the school's grounds and neat suburban gardens, whose owners have also taken a keen interest in the wildlife, and attended meetings at the school on the subject.
The work was carried out by a school conservation group, which includes parents, teachers and children - many of whom worked at weekends - and conservation volunteers from Hastings. Grants to assist the work included Pounds 2,000 from the National Rivers Authority and Pounds 1,500 from Hastings Environmental Challenge, a competition organised by the council.
Classes regularly visit the area, studying and comparing different habitats and the creatures that live in them, including minibeasts, birds and pond animals.
"We encourage them to look at the whole eco-system, at how food chains are related to the local area and then to Hastings and then to the world," says deputy head Keith Cheetham. Poems, essays and other work have been inspired by the nature area, and diaries are kept by each class, who contribute sketches and illustrations, written work and records.
Foxes have been spotted on the trails, but pupils have yet to catch a glimpse of the elusive badger. However, Mr Cheetham hopes to set up two hides which groups can visit at night to observe this shy, endangered creature as well as other animals and birds.
An education officer from the RSPCA recently gave a presentation on badgers, using slides and games to introduce the subject, followed by a walk round the nature area to look for signs of their presence. Apart from the two setts and the heritage paths, scratch marks on trees could be seen. These helped the pupils to locate the fence under which the badgers had entered the grounds.
Even though the school is close to Mallydams Wood, Mr Cheetham believes firmly that visits to the RSPCA centre are no substitute for a school having its own wildlife area. They provide opportunities for pupils to care for, study and conserve wildlife in their immediate surroundings; to see changes on a daily basis. "The children are protective of it; if one so much as picks a flowerhead they say, 'What are you doing? This place is for us'."
Margaret beavan school, Liverpool One thing that the Margaret Beavan School in Liverpool has discovered is that an animal doesn't have to be cuddly to elicit affection.
The school for children aged five to sixteen with slight learning difficulties has a strong policy of encouraging respect and care for all living creatures, to which the vast majority respond extremely well.
It was following a project on snails that the school noted a difference in pupils' behaviour towards animals. During a stay at an environmental study centre it was noted that pupils were showing a particular interest in the creatures, removing snails gently from the paths. "Previously some children might well have stamped on them," says teacher Pat Boyes.
She firmly believes that the study of mini-beasts has reinforced the school's efforts to instil respect for living creatures.
The school created a wildlife garden in l992. Senior boys dug a pond, and the adjacent area was made into a chequerboard garden, an area of plants broken up by paving stones on which the children could stand to examine wildlife all year round.
Elsewhere, a tubular greenhouse was erected for growing plants from seed, and behind this a patch of ground was left uncultivated to attract bees and butterflies. There is also a grassy area with picnic tables: "It's a tranquil area," says Pat Boyes.
The whole school uses the garden to study the life cyle of frogs and mini-beasts, butterflies and birds, and to note the habitats of different animals.
A snails' habitat was recently recreated in school inside a tank. They were fed on special diets and placed on a perspex sheet so that pupils, using a magnifying glass, could watch how they moved from underneath.
A wormery was also created, comprising layers of different types of soil and vegetation, and the complete life cycle of caterpillars and maggots was observed using a kit bought by the school. Pat Boyes is enthusiastic about these projects. "The interest they generated was amazing," she says. "With children with learning difficulties in particular it is important that they see the process with living creatures; pictures in books aren't enough."
RAISING AWARENESS IN SCHOOLS: RESOURCES AND INFORMATION. * The RSPCA believes "raising people's awareness is the best insurance against cruelty to animals".
The society produces information sheets, books, leaflets and teaching resources, although its nine education officers do not take animals into schools. The society's report, Animals and Education: Making your School Animal-Friendly, contains guidance on developing a policy on animals as part of the school development plan.
Other publications from the RSPCA include magazines, worksheets on aspects of pet care, wall charts and slide sets.
RSPCA, Causeway, Horsham, West Sussex RH12 1HG. Tel: 01403 264181. Mallydams Wood, the RSPCA's study centre, is situated in Peter James Lane, Fairlight, near Hastings, East Sussex. Tel: 01424 812055.
* Other organisations include: Insect Lore, Suite 6, Linford Forum, Linford Wood, Milton Keynes MK14 6LY. Tel: 01908 200 794. Insect Lore supplies the kits used by Margaret Beavan school.
Pet Care Trust, Bedford Business Centre, 170 Mile Road, Bedford MK42 9TW. Tel: 01234 273933