Safety laws are not to blame for lifeless labs

9th February 2001 at 00:00
While your report on the threats to practical science (TES, January 26) was a reasonable summary of many views, your leader did not draw the right conclusions.

There is no need for regulations to differentiate more between school labs and chemical conglomerates. With minor (but irritating) exceptions they already do quite well. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) usually interprets the regulations in a realistic and pragmatic way.

A seminar, organised two years ago by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the request of the HSE, came to the conclusion that health and safety legislation was not inhibiting exciting practical science. It was sometimes used as an excuse, but the real reasons are well known. They include: insufficient technician time; teachers without the time or confidence to prepare and practice demonstrations; an over-loaded curriculum; too much emphasis on exam results, through mindless repetition of past papers; insufficient and clapped-out apparatus.

A bigger problem than regulations is the increasing tendency for parents to take legal action. Every time a pupil gets a finger burnt as aresult of picking up a hot tripod, the school is at risk of being sued. Usually, the case is very weak, but unfortunately insurers find it expedient to pay up a small amount, rather than go to the expense of going to court.

Unfortunately, too, waste disposal regulations are not interpreted with the same degree of common sense as those on health and safety. If applied literally, a school science department (but not a history department) could be prosecuted for throwing a torch battery into the refuse.

So far, neither the Environment Agency nor the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions has been willing to say that they would not consider prosecution in such circumstances.

The laboratory development programme, referred to by education minister Estelle Morris, will at last improve the surroundings in which science is taught. But this will make little difference without tackling the other issues and banging a few heads together (without protective hard hats!) Dr Peter Borrows Director, Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services Brunel University

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