How we did it - Pet project

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Research has found that children learn a range of skills by interacting with animals. One primary put the theory to the test among SEN pupils, with fascinating results

The issue

The Priory Primary School is nestled in the Friar Park estate, north-west of Birmingham. Most of its pupils are eligible for free school meals and it has an above-average number of children with special educational needs and disabilities. The school has worked hard to remove barriers to achievement and as part of this ethos Felicity Somervell, the deputy headteacher, brought her dog, Daisy, on board to help children with varying degrees of SEN.

Research by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) indicates that children learn a range of personal and social skills through interacting with animals. Classroom pets also teach children about caring for something that depends on them and how to deal with death and grieving. Dogs in particular are thought to have a positive impact on communication and literacy skills in children who have SEN.

Charities such as the Blue Cross, SCAS and Pets as Therapy take animals into schools on a part-time basis either to help with talks or to work in class for a specific therapeutic purpose. These one-off visits are common, but it is more unusual for schools to have their own animal-in-residence.

Felicity Somervell first brought Daisy to school two years ago as part of a pet project for Year 1s. But she was so popular and good with the children that she decided to look into bringing her in on a regular basis.

What they did

"The more I found out about it the less firm evidence I could find against it," she says. After consulting the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations' Rio Declaration on Pets in Schools, Mrs Somervell registered Daisy with Pets as Therapy "so she's officially qualified for being in these situations". The board of governors approved a policy for having her in school, a letter was sent to the parents asking them to air any concerns and she hasn't looked back since.

Despite the obvious benefits to pupils, the school was cautious about how Ofsted might react. Daisy was present during the most recent inspection and a call had to be made to head office to clarify the rules. It was eventually approved and the school received an outstanding report saying that "pupils who find learning difficult for whatever reason, including those with learning difficulties andor disabilities, are exceptionally well supported".

To get to the school, visitors have to go past the nearby Priory Family Centre's cafe and reception, but Daisy is often outside greeting parents and children as they arrive in the morning. As the day begins she parks herself in the hallway in prime position for a pat on the head as the 240 pupils go past for assembly.

Tania Carlsson-Yates is a qualified Pets as Therapy volunteer and brings her dog, Tetley, into schools for children who have SEN. "The children (I work with) live in a different world," she says. "Their reactions are completely unpredictable and when those who had this genuine fear saw a dog in the street they might have run out on the road in front of a car to avoid it."

At first it was a big step even to have the dog in the classroom. But over time pupils get used to her presence and eventually help to groom and lead her around. But Mrs Carlsson-Yates doesn't claim any credit. "I don't say that I work with autistic children - it's Tetley who does all the work," she says.

Before working with Pets as Therapy, Mrs Carlsson-Yates was a headteacher and took her dog to school throughout her 42-year career. She remembers the animal sitting with pupils who were waiting to come into her office. Even unruly pupils would unburden their worries to it as they waited to be called in, everything from fears about punishment to showing off their new shoes.

"It is wonderful for the children but it has to be properly looked after," she says. "We always had a policy of making sure the animal's welfare came first. In today's world there isn't time. Teachers didn't have so much written work to do and now it seems they don't even have time to think."


One of the main concerns about keeping animals in the classroom is that it can be detrimental to the animal's welfare. What happens to it over the holidays or at the weekend? Even if it is a teacher's pet, is it appropriate for it to be contained in a school environment during the day?

The RSPCA has a policy of discouraging schools from keeping animals in schools for fear of causing them distress or suffering. In accordance with the terms of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act pet owners have to make sure their animal's needs are met. These include its right to a suitable environment, to exhibit normal behaviour patterns and to be housed with or apart from other animals.

"It should be remembered that animals are not just another educational resource," state the guidelines. "They are living creatures and their welfare needs must not be disregarded for short-term educational purposes." These needs can be met in school, but the RSPCA believes the animal's welfare is more likely to be compromised in such a setting.

Because of the nature of her work at Priory Primary School, Felicity Somervell felt that Daisy's needs could be met there and that she could take on the responsibility. A major advantage is Daisy can come and go as she pleases and often goes outside with the pupils on their breaks. There isn't a specific rota for the classes she is sitting in on so there is no pressure for her to be confined when she wants to be out and about.

The temperament of different dogs varies widely: not all breeds or personalities suit being around so many young children, who could make them too excitable. Mrs Somervell and the staff agreed that Daisy's calm nature was suited to the environment of Priory Primary and was mutually beneficial for Daisy, who likes the company, and the pupils themselves.

The outcome

Mrs Somervell, who is referred to as Daisy's "mummy" by staff and pupils, believes the dog has a very calming effect on pupils. "It's important children learn to care for animals and in doing so care for other people," she says. "It's also an interesting way for them to learn."

The benefits of having a dog at school are most evident with children who have learning difficulties. "It calms them down and they become much more confident," she says.

"It gives them something to talk to adults about. If you find it hard to communicate you find it hard to learn." The school runs a Time to Talk project for the Early Years to try to counter underdeveloped literacy, numeracy and personal skills when pupils start nursery, and Daisy encourages communication skills.

During one busy afternoon Mrs Somervell and Daisy accompanied a small group of seven-year-olds who have moderate special educational needs into the sensory room for some time out. As they listened to soothing music, the children stroked the dog's back or held her quietly. One little boy put his arms around her neck, beaming and scrunching his eyes closed in delight


Draft a policy for keeping animals at school and get it approved by the board of governors.

Write to parents asking them to air concerns. These can be dealt with on a one-to-one basis.

To comply with the 2006 Animal Welfare Act and ensure you're putting the animal's needs first, carry out a temperament test. A dog should be calm and able to deal with noise and attention without getting overexcited.

Some breeds are naturally more suited to working with children, but it depends on the dog's personality. Specially trained temperament assessors can spot potential behavioural problems.

There might be a lot of procedures to go through, but those who have taken on the extra responsibility are in no doubt that it is worth it.

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