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Don't let safety fears make science dull, teachers told

TEACHERS have been urged not to reduce science experiments or field trips because of misplaced health and safety fears.

stimulation: Concerns have been raised that if pupils do not see visually exciting science experiments they may not be inspired to engage with the subject. Picture: Shutterstock
stimulation: Concerns have been raised that if pupils do not see visually exciting science experiments they may not be inspired to engage with the subject. Picture: Shutterstock

The Health and Safety Executive said there was no legislative reason why pupils should be stopped from taking part in what some consider risky activities.

The warning came after concerns surfaced that science teaching in Scottish schools is being hampered by fears that traditional experiments are too dangerous.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) said exciting lessons where pupils were allowed to experiment with chemicals had been phased out because of growing health and safety fears.

The comments came after the publication of a new report on the teaching of science by national quango Education Scotland. It stressed the importance of developing science teaching in a "wider range of stimulating and real-life" contexts.

A House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which reported last year, found "no convincing evidence" that health and safety legislation itself prevented this from happening – with problems surrounding how legislation is interpreted and applied.

Judith Hackitt, chairwoman of the UK-wide Health and Safety Executive, said Scottish schools should do as much as possible to help pupils learn how to manage hazards and risks.

"Health and safety does not have to get in the way of anything and is simply about schools taking sensible precautions," she said. "There is evidence that there is a greater reluctance in some schools in Scotland, and throughout the UK, to let pupils do science experiments or go on school trips, and of that there is no doubt.

"What we are saying is that there is nothing in health and safety that should be causing that as long as sensible precautions are taken."

Ms Hackitt believes part of the problem is the pressure some parents place on schools, as well as the threat of legal action if accidents do occur.

"If you talk to teachers they will tell you what they are really afraid of is that if someone gets hurt on a school trip or during an experiment they will come under a lot of pressure from parents.

"They are fearful that will be followed up by a civil action suing the school for damages, and it is because of the fear of that, rather than the reality, that schools become over-cautious about letting pupils do the sort of things that were routine a few years ago. Schools and councils need to be given greater confidence to let go of some of the bureaucracy that is put in place thinking it will protect them."

Ms Hackitt added: "Schools have to engage with parents and have a conversation about the fact there is no such thing as a risk-free environment; and if we try to create one, they will grow up thinking they are fireproof, and when they go out into the big wide world they will be a liability to us all."

Earlier this year, Eileen Prior, SPTC executive director, said: "Experiments are the key to make science relevant and interesting, but a lot of the whizz-bang has gone out of the subject.

"There is an obsession with health and safety now, so there is far less of the kind of science that went on a few years ago.

"If pupils don't see the more spectacular and visually exciting experiments then there are serious concerns over whether they will engage with the subject and be inspired by it."

Leader comment: Page 16

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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