Safe but far from sound

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Wrapping students in cotton wool risks knocking the stuffing out of science teaching, warns Helen Flatley.

We're all health and safety conscious these days, aren't we? At the start of the year, we science teachers plan our practicals and trips, draw up associated risk assessments and collate health and safety information. Before the students set foot in a lab, we lecture them sternly on the hellfire and damnation that will descend should they so much as sneeze in an unauthorised manner. And for anything slightly out of the ordinary, more paperwork and permission in triplicate is required than you need to get a visa to Albania.

But, you say, surely all this is a Good Thing. After all, we have a duty to look after students, particularly those under 16, for whom we are in loco parentis. True, but I have more than a sneaking suspicion that the prime concern these days is less the welfare of the students than the litigation risk to the institutions. For a good and experienced teacher the necessary information is, and always has been, in one's head andor notes. The institution-generated paperwork is fated to be neatly filed in case the Men from the Ministry happen to drop by.

I'm not sure the effect on the students is always beneficial either. What sort of impression does it create on a first-time class of evening students to be read (as an official requirement) a stern injunction against the hazards of playing with fire extinguishers? And I vividly remember, after one of my more inspired rants, one poor girl shaking so badly that she couldn't get the lid off a Petri dish. Talk about cutting out the middle man - forget the practicals, let's scare them to death instead.

What really got me thinking, though, was the incident of the eyes. Over recent years we had accepted meekly that we could no longer do cheek smears, that students could not look at their own blood under the microscope, that we had to give up the fun thing of sticking rubber tubing down a trachea to inflate a pair of lungs, that we couldn't even think about anything that might involve bovine tissue. In short, we had meekly acquiesced to a wholesale massacre of some of the most interesting biology practicals.

We didn't want to lose eyes as well. OK, dissection of cows' eyes was out - but what about pigs' or sheep's eyes? We asked for an official ruling - and we got it. To paraphrase the letter from the chief health and safety officer of the institution concerned: "We accept that with regard to pigs' and sheep's eyes there is no risk, but we are not prepared to take it."

That was a truly depressing moment in the history of our biology department. And I began to wonder, what are we positively doing for our students, as opposed to just keeping them safe?

I suppose changes have been needed. When I was at school we could play spot-football with blobs of mercury, take an early morning dip in formalin and hack away at any number of body-parts for microscopic examination. Perhaps attitudes were a little too casual but, as far as I know, we came through unscathed. And we had fun. We looked forward to our biology lessons as a break from the theory of other subjects.

What is the message we are giving out now? That science can be made risk-free? This is not only dull, it is untrue. The best science has been carried out by risk-takers - those we regard as "heroes" of science today were often cavalier with their own safety (Madame Curie's lab would certainly have been shut down by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health police). The scientists were excited, obsessive, careless (but with the imaginative ability to appreciate the unexpected results of their carelessness) and all sorts of other human qualities that would have no place on a risk assessment form.

A balance must be struck between the excesses of creative genius and the need to keep the average student safe. But we have gone too far in the direction of caution.

After all, as Francis Crick is supposed to have said in the early stages of his acquaintance with James Watson: "If science isn't fun, what is the point?" Helen Flatley lives in Wigan, Lancs

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