Creative teaching in the lab is stifled by an overcrowded curriculum and local authorites terrified of being sued, says James Williams
uring the filming of That'll Teach 'Em, we only had to call the police once. Did the children riot? Had lack of fast food or mobiles sent them mad? No. We had to call the police to let them know that Dr Szydlo, the chemist, was going to be setting off some loud explosions in the school grounds. We didn't want local residents to think there was some sort of attack going on and trigger a full-scale terrorist alert.
Despite what you saw on the programme - gun-cotton explosions, noxious fumes, eyeballs popping and pupils dunked in metal baths - nobody was injured, Well, that's not strictly true, I was. I nicked myself with a scalpel practising rabbit dissection. But nobody died, except of course the rabbits, who gave their lives in the service of education. I wonder if Tony Blair will consider them for a gong? After all, they did do more to further knowledge and understanding than a dodgy loan would.
But I digress. One theme of the show was how "real" practical work can enhance science teaching and learning. There are still some good old "bucket chemists" out there, wowing the crowds with flash, bang and wallop experiments but, on the whole, teachers today are stifled in what they do in the lab.
It's actually a combination of two things: an overcrowded curriculum and a terrified local authority which bans practical work that shouldn't be banned just in case a child pulls a muscle picking up a tripod and sues.
There are remarkably few things you cannot legally do in school science, contrary to popular belief. A quick look on the TES online science forum and you'll find messages asking if eye dissection can be done? The answer is yes. Pigs' eyes are good. Bulls' eyes need to be less than three years old and sheep's eyes can also be used. The sharper the scalpel, the better - because an eyeball is a tough thing to cut open.
During my teacher training, we had a whole day of "dangerous" experiments that pep up your teaching. We learned how to do them safely and how to cheat - making it look more dangerous than it actually was - so that the "wow" factor was big. Today, we more or less have to tell our trainee teachers how not to do practical work and how to cheat with DVDs, computer simulation and a thorough training in law: how to avoid being sued.
I'm all for making activities safe, but that doesn't mean eliminating all risk. The fewer times children are exposed to risk, the more difficult it will be for them to deal with it when they leave the comfort zone of school and go into the big wide world.
On the television show, we had to make the children wear crash helmets and knee-pads for the go-kart race - the health and safety adviser insisted on it. Ironically, the only person injured in the race was one of the cameramen, run over by a wayward go-kart when its wheel came off. He wasn't wearing a crash helmet or knee-pads. I guess in future it will become part of his kit.
I'm often asked for quotes on education by local newspapers. Once, I was asked to comment on a tragic accident that happened in a school. A pupil put an arm through a window at break time. A very nasty cut, but no permanent damage was the result. The parents called for all glass in schools to be safety glass. The local authority, sensibly, said this would cost too much. The parents' response was that the council put cost before children's lives. A great soundbite, but is it really true? I wondered if all the glass in their house was safety glass.
It's not just school science that has gone "safety". A few years ago, South Teesside council cut down conker trees just in case children injured themselves climbing. Don't they know conkers fall to the ground? Another council planted a row of yew trees near a children's playground.
After a risk assessment judged that if children ate large quantities of the bitter tasting leaves it would make them vomit, they dug them up. It is well-known that children don't eat anything green. Well, I have news for you: drinking too much water will kill you and a lettuce probably has more natural toxins in it than any other vegetable. But don't panic: you'd have to eat a tonne a day for a week to build up enough poison to kill you.
By all means reduce risks, but let's be sensible about health and safety.
If we don't take some risks now and then, if we don't let children take a few controlled risks, how on earth will the human race ever make any progress?
James Williams was the deputy head and housemaster in Channel 4's That'll Teach 'Em. In real life he is a lecturer in science education at Sussex University.