Classroom practice - How guns can help to boost kids' learning
An eight-year-old boy raises a shotgun to his shoulder, tracks a target and calmly blasts it into millions of tiny pieces, watched throughout by the teachers who put everything in place to let it happen.
If the child was 14 years old, shooting clay pigeons like this would barely raise a murmur of disapproval: with outdoor activities and groups such as the cadets common in 11-16 education, the pastime is grudgingly tolerated for this age group.
If you put a child under the age of 11 in possession of a gun, however, the world erupts in fury.
It's a fury based on a well-established argument. First, guns are, by design, tools to injure or kill. Many believe that giving a gun to a young child is therefore inappropriate, an intrusion of adult aggression on childhood innocence.
Second, there is the safety angle. Can a young child be trusted to be mature enough to handle a gun? Gill Marshall-Andrews of the UK's Gun Control Network believes not. "GCN is absolutely committed to keeping guns away from children. Guns are dangerous weapons, which are frequently misused," she says. "No child should be taught to shoot until the age of 18, when they assume adult rights and responsibilities."
Last of all, evidence of youthful irresponsibility with guns abounds, from inner-city gang culture in countries across the world to all-too-frequent school shootings in the US.
Put all this together and it is no surprise that at the first sniff of gunpowder near a primary school, the media and lobbying groups erupt before a single clay pigeon has had time to chance an improbable escape.
But what about the counter-argument? You rarely hear the other side of the story yet there must be one: schools do not hold such events simply to provoke criticism. However, it is difficult to find a school that has provided a shooting experience for its under-11s that will talk openly and explain its thinking, such is the fear of prompting a backlash.
Fortunately, Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, south-east England, is willing to go on the record. In July, he held a day's shooting experience for 30 children aged 8-11. He says his reasons were multiple: to educate children about the countryside and how it is managed, to instruct children about the food chain and to instil skills such as self-discipline and commitment to a task.
"We need to get beyond that Victorian, behind-desks model of education and get children actively involved," he says when asked why these lessons cannot be instilled in the classroom. "We are a successful school, rated good with excellent features by inspectors, because we teach this way."
There is another reason he wanted to get the kids shooting: equal opportunities. His school has a diverse catchment with a large proportion of children entitled to free school meals. He wanted these students to have equal access to the opportunities normally reserved for private school children.
"It's about trust," he says. "We trust independent school children everywhere to shoot at this age, so why do we not trust children at state-run schools? Just because parents have more money, that does not mean the kids are any more reliable."
That quote may surprise people. The consensus is that shooting in the 4-11 age group in schools is rare. In fact, in the private sectors of both the US and UK education systems, it is relatively common. In the UK, the Preparatory Schools Rifle Association (PSRA) currently works with 43 prep schools and has 39 prep-school members, while the sporting body USA Shooting says children as young as nine shoot regularly in US private schools.
The reason these private schools offer shooting is not because the upper classes have more of a tradition of gun sports (although that is why the practice goes largely unnoticed by the media): it is for the educational reasons outlined by Fairclough.
"With niche sports such as archery and clay pigeon shooting, children can find an area outside the classroom where they can excel, which can be incredibly rewarding and also builds their confidence to be the best they can be across the entire curriculum," says David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools in the UK.
Other benefits include skills-building and career training, according to private schools and shooting groups.
"Kids learn life skills such as self-control, goal setting, planning and leadership," says Michael Theimer, youth programs and athlete development manager for USA Shooting. "And the academic performance of students who do shoot is often in the upper percentile of their classes."
Mary Eveleigh, secretary of the PSRA, says that shooting also teaches children to control their emotions and to think about the consequences of their actions, which is useful for behaviour management. She adds that if you teach javelin and archery - just as dangerous in the wrong hands - then why not shooting, which is also an Olympic sport?
And there is another, socio-economic, factor, according to Simon Clarke, head of press relations at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). He says that shooting-related industries - including conservation and land management - are worth #163;1.6 billion a year and 70,000 jobs to the UK economy. "It is important for all children, not just those in private schools, to have an equal chance to access this market," he says.
Critics may query why all these lessons cannot wait until the children are older. Eveleigh answers with a question of her own: on what basis would you delay them?
"There is no legal or physical barrier to teaching shooting from a young age, so why delay?" she asks. "The benefits that shooting brings are as applicable to younger students as older ones; and there is an argument that the younger the benefits and skills that come from shooting are instilled, the better the long-term impact."
Anti-gun groups respond that you should delay - in their view indefinitely - because of safety. Even if the educational benefits are real (which they question), they say that safety concerns mean a shooting education should still have no place in schools.
The BASC and USA Shooting claim that this view is contrary to the evidence: in none of the exercises that they have run with under-11s has either organisation had a single dangerous incident. "We have the best safety record of any sport in the US," Theimer says.
They add that coaches are highly trained and assess each child to ensure they have the appropriate maturity, intelligence and physicality to handle a gun. If they meet the requirements, the child is given an extensive safety briefing before entering a controlled environment - cordoned-off ranges, a coach beside the student at all times and the student never alone with a loaded weapon or with access to ammunition - to shoot.
The BASC's Clarke says this lesson in shooting is surely preferable to the ones that some parents give their children via computer games, where young people handle realistic weaponry and use it to kill characters or fellow players' avatars.
As with every facet of this issue, this argument is debatable. And yet, because shooting is such an emotive subject, proper debate rarely takes place. When it does occur, with both sides equally represented, Fairclough says the results can be surprising: 100 per cent of parents at West Rise supported the school's shooting day.
While he is not saying the same will occur in every school, he argues that parents and students should at least have both sides of the debate presented to them.
"There will always be those who disagree," he says. "But people should be trusted with the full picture on the issue so they can make an informed judgement. You never know, people may come to a conclusion that they previously didn't think possible."
In their sights: discussing the pros and cons of teaching primary children about weapons.