Fire burn, cauldron bubble

10th May 1996 at 01:00
James Williams shares a guilty secret and explains why the issue of safety goes beyond the rules and regulations.

I have a small confession to make. As a new, young teacher I overestimated the amount of potassium I should lob into a water bath. Luckily, I had a safety screen up and the pupils were all wearing goggles. Unluckily, I didn't move the clutter of coats on the side bench. A small piece of potassium shot out of the bath and on to a pupil's jacket. No one except myself noticed and I dealt with the smouldering piece. At the end of the lesson, the owner of the jacket showed me the burn hole. With tongue in cheek and an ever-elongating nose, I said, perfectly truthfully, that it looked like a cigarette burn.

Fortunately for me, the pupil was a well-known smoker who assumed the burn must be the result of a breaktime quickie at the back of the gym.

Safety is a big issue in schools these days, not just safety in science but the whole notion of safety in the workplace. Two new publications will receive priority allocation of my faculty budget this year. Safety in Science Education, from the Department for Education and Employment, is potentially worth its weight in gold, though quite why the publishers chose to illustrate the cover with a photograph of a pupil in a technology workshop is an enigma. It is, despite this bit of poetic licence on science lab equipment, a comprehensive manual whose cost deserves to come not out of dedicated science department money, but whole-school funding. It covers everything from the legal position held by the headteacher, governors and class-teachers to resources, chemicals, equipment and, most importantly, good laboratory practice. If any book ought to be compulsory reading for the non-scientists who are technically employers in schools, this is the one. The issue of safety, however, extends beyond simple rules and regulations. The whole crux of safe practice will to a large extent depend on your ability as a classroom practitioner to maintain and enforce good discipline. Any risk assessment you carry out will only be as good as the degree to which your pupils conform to it.

Try inviting a few of your colleagues into one of your practical science lessons and then ask their opinion of classroom management. The sight of 15 Bunsens and numerous bottles of unknown liquids with beakers seemingly precariously balanced on tripods, strikes fear into the heart of many a hardened disciplinarian. Classroom management in science is particularly tough and not susceptible to being learned through mistakes. A mistake in science can potentially cause a serious injury. It is a testament to the professionalism of both science teachers and technicians that less than 1 per cent of all serious accidents in schools take place in the laboratory. The task of managing safety in the laboratory is one that is delegated by the senior management of schools and colleges to the head of science, but ultimately it is the classroom teacher who has to deal with the practicality of running a safe yet enjoyable lesson.

Recent events reported in the media highlighted the existence of unruly pupils whose respect for authority is non-existent. Since becoming a head of science, I have had to deal with many situations involving the safety of pupils and staff alike. Unfortunately, I have also had occasion to exclude a pupil from practical science on the grounds that I could not trust that pupil in a situation where there were potentially dangerous chemicals and equipment. It happened as a last resort, after a catalogue of behavioural problems in a number of curriculum areas and after the pupil caused a minor accident involving a very experienced teacher demonstrating an experiment which involved heating an acid. The pupil's refusal to obey the instruction of the class teacher distracted that teacher just enough to tip a well-thought out and safe activity over into one which became potentially hazardous, with the acid overheating.

All pupils have a right to an education, without question, but there are many other considerations that need to be addressed to ensure that the right of one individual does not disadvantage or endanger the rights of many others.

In all documentation on safety the advice about dealing with potentially disruptive pupils is sound and quite clear. Should they be a problem for a particular teacher then they should be placed under the supervision of a more experienced teacher. Alas, for some pupils even this has little or no effect and then exclusion is the only answer.

The Association for Science Education has produced a new and revised edition of its hugely popular book Safeguards in the School Laboratory. This book is concise, easy to use and cross-references the DFEE's new publication and other essential safety publications. In formulating and reviewing safety in a school laboratory teachers must assiduously seek the best advice. Combining the DFEE and the ASE publications along with membership of an organisation such as CLEAPSS (Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services) will make the review and evaluation of safety much easier and much more effective.

The advent of investigative science and the open-ended nature of coursework for students at GCSE often means that instead of a standard practical being provided with each pupil given a set of identical equipment, pupils may choose the type of equipment they require for their own investigation. Keeping track of this is difficult and what the retail trade calls "shrinkage" occurs. In science we don't dress it up, we call it theft. Theft of potentially hazardous chemicals is something of which all science staff are aware. Thinking back to my own school days, when mercury was that wondrous liquid that split into hundreds of tiny ball-bearings when flicked, it is easy to see the magpie effect on pupils of those clever things you show them, like burning magnesium ribbon. As any police officer will tell you, nothing can stop a determined thief but it is worth considering a list of the top ten "nickables" and making sure that these are high on the checking list for each practical lesson.

Lines of communication between technicians and teachers are vital here, as is being clear who has responsibility for checking equipment in and out of classrooms. Technicians play an important part in the provision of a safe science education. A well-informed technician is above price; when looking at safety in education, they are key personnel to consult.

The level of qualification in technicians is highly variable, as is the level of experience. Just as new teachers have a lot to learn about safe working in a laboratory, so do new technicians. In-service training is vital for both. In recognising the role that technicians play in science education the ASE has a relatively new category of membership specifically aimed at technicians. All members get free safety advice and access to many useful articles on laboratory safety. In a new development the ASE has recently produced a page on the Internet which also contains a number of safety articles that can obtained free, or for the cost of a phone call to log on to the ASE home page. Safety is naturally and rightly a high priority in science; there is probably more useful information out there to help science teachers than they realise.

The DFEE's Safety in Science Education is published by HMSO, Pounds 14. 95 Safeguards in the School Laboratory (10th edition) is published by ASE, Pounds 9.00

ASE on the Internet, htpp:wwwrmplccoukorgsasehqindex.htm

James Williams is head of the science faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey

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