A world of Sensation beyond the in-tray

14th February 2003 at 00:00
I NEED to get out more. My greatest satisfaction nowadays is when I reduce the paper mountain a little and that's after a judicious use of the waste bucket. I know that raising attainment and monitoring learning and teaching are more important. Even better is finding time to work with children just for the sheer enjoyment of it. But, like it or not, there is no clearer measure of success than shrinking the paper pile.

I turn down invitations rather than lose control of my in-tray. I seldom attend courses now and can't remember my last school outing. So, in the interests of sanity, I tore myself from my office to accompany our primary 7 classes on a visit to Sensation. As I said, I need to get out more.

Sensation is the Dundee science centre dedicated to the investigation of our senses. A link with Careers Scotland has enabled our authority to offer its primary schools a special careers-based visit to Sensation, all expenses paid.

I like Dundee. It has no pretensions but it boasts an excellent theatre and art galleries, two universities, ground-breaking research into cancer, a public observatory and the publishing home of the Beano and Dandy.

It has a sense of humour, too. The prize nautical exhibit, Discovery, is not what it seems. It did not carry Captain Scott on the ill-fated South Pole expedition of 1910 from which he didn't return, but on an earlier 1901 visit to the Antarctic. Only Dundee could have given us William McGonagall, the world's worst poet.

My favourite Dundee joke is probably apocryphal. Artist Leo Baxendale is said to have invented the Bash Street Kids after observing the antics of children in a school playground near to D C Thomson's headquarters. The school in question is the fee-paying High School of Dundee. Can you see Plug and Smiffy in smart, navy blue blazers?

Dundee's most fascinating sight is on our route to Sensation. The stumps of Sir Thomas Bouche's original Tay Bridge, still attacked by swirling waters, are a haunting memorial to the victims of the disaster. They remind us how it was ignorance of science which brought about the collapse of the high girders on December 28, 1879. Sensation is around the corner from the station where anxious relatives waited for the train that never arrived.

On this visit we became forensic scientists. A video clip of one at work was followed by a question and answer session. Our pupils regularly quoted DNA. This was clever of them since they don't know what it means. They were also impressive in examining finger prints, using microscopes on almost anything and comparing different inks by chromatography.

I enjoyed the education room best with its white coats, test-tubes, universal indicator and water samples from different sites in an imaginary landscape. Testing led to results and to decisions about where to place scarce resources to combat pollution. The education room had an interactive white board and a wall plaque stating that it was sponsored by the Bank of Scotland.

Is there a chance of this fine Scottish institution, which has held my account for decades, sponsoring a similar classroom for our school?

The clever Sensation management also has a ploy to encourage repeat business accompanied by paying parents. Visit the Careers Scotland website, they said, and you can download a voucher for a free visit to Sensation.

In my absence the paper pile had grown. Was I bothered? Not at all. The scintillating company, the science and my share of Euan's Dolly Mixtures were much better fun than the paper mountain.

I was right. I do need to get out more.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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