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  Health & Safety - Discussion and policy

Andrew Smith's risk assessment

Please click here to download a copy of Andrew Smith's Minibeast and Rainforest Workshops Risk Assessment

Andrew Smith's - Discussion Paper

The following discussion paper has been written for the consideration of school teachers. They are the personal views of a qualified school teacher with 22 years classroom experience who now takes animal workshops into schools. They have been drawn up, after consultation, with other responsible school based demonstrators, education officers and staff members of the Zoological Society of London, the views of whom Andrew Smith has much respect for .

Discussion - There are out there, in the big wide world, two very different types of animal workshops. There is the school based animal workshop, which is often fronted by an ex-science teacher and there is the big reptile, children's party orientated workshop - fronted by an entertainer. These workshops are often very different animals.

What you expect from a school based workshop is that they are going to be a professional outfit, fronted by a teacher, zoologist or an enthusiast with a very good knowledge base - who is going to undertake a national curriculum science lesson. What you are looking for is an individual who can impart their love and knowledge of the subject to your children and put that creature into the context of the science lesson that you want developed. You are not looking for a demonstrator who is going to reinforce negative stereotypes and attitudes. Many children are fearful of big snakes and thus a demonstrator's primary role is to alleviate negative fears and demonstrate the fascinating beauty of these creatures - not revel in being a macho-man wielding a six foot python. You are asking him to show a snake and talk about it in relation to senses, habitats, adaptation or food chains. What you have to ask yourself is - does it need to be six feet long and why? If the inclusion can be justified - fine! The animal must also fit into a logical sequence of creatures that develop your specific classroom science theme. It is unlikely that you have booked a road-show to specifically talk about snakes - the demonstrator will probably be expected to be developing a national curriculum science topic using a wide range of relevant animals. Unless, of course, you want a road show to turn up at your school and simply talk about giant reptiles?

What you are also looking for is an individual who has given some thought to the animals that they are bringing into your classroom and what they intend doing with them? What you should never see is a demonstrator placing a large boa or python snake around a child's shoulders. A few years ago a survey was undertaken to discover why so many adults are fearful of snakes - and what came back, time after time, is that 'when I was nine years old a giant snake was placed around my neck and then it began to move and I was terrified.' Not good and so unnecessary. The demonstrator could have just as easily used a small, pretty, well handled, corn snake - allayed all fears and perfectly adequately discussed and developed a given topic. Another example of bad practice is the placing of a tarantula spider on a child's hand. The demonstrator should cup the spider in his own hand and the child can stroke its legs. We thus have wonderment, but safe wonderment tempered by professionalism!

In the UK it is illegal to keep certain animals without a DWA license, which include crocodiles, alligators and dangerous scrubland/desert scorpions - so you should not see these animals being brought into your classroom, unless they are dead and dried or stuffed. What you do not want in your school is the liability road show. All of which, brings us to my own personal belief that large snakes should not be taken into primary schools for the purpose of handling. The statement, 'my large boa or python does not bite' - is simply not true! It can inflict a painful bite and thus it should not be placed in a scenario where this is possible. Many years ago my class and I watched a demonstrator being bitten by his own python. I immediately ended the workshop and removed my distressed class. If the demonstrator does feel it is necessary, he should be distanced from the children and the snake should not be touched. A well handled corn snake can then be got out for stroking. For additional safety the demonstrator can palm the head of the snake so that only the body is stroked.

Even the lizard that the demonstrator is using indicates the level of thought that has gone into working with children. Many wonderful lizards (not all) have sharp claws - which mean that a child can get scratched! If the child is just stroking the lizard, no problem, if the child is holding it we have a different kettle of fish. Essentially, in any workshop, some animals are for demonstration and thus talk and chalk and some are for touchy feely! Your demonstrator should know the difference.

Essentially it is all about striking a balance between the showmanship of presenting a live animal show (these workshops have been described as educational theatre) and the health and safety of both the children and the animals. What the demonstrator must never forget is that the health and safety of the children in your class is paramount and must never be compromised for the sake of theatre!

It is important to ensure that your demonstrator has been cleared for working with children - are they enhanced CRB police checked. Ask to see their documentation. Are they insured? Ask to see their policy document. Ask for a Risk Assessment - they should have given this subject some thought. Ask for the list of the animals, which they intend to bring into your school.

In my opinion absolute no, no's in schools are - very large snakes, King snakes, rat snakes (unless purely for display and no child contact) many large lizards such as monitors, baby crocodiles/alligators (a DWA license is needed to keep the latter, which means secure housing - and consequently it is illegal to bring either of these reptiles into schools), live centipedes and live desert scorpions. Anybody who uses this material thoughtlessly is essentially coming into your school as the liability workshop.

Animals which, are fine for the purpose of show-and-tell demonstrations but for various reasons (susceptible to stress or simply being scratchy or able to bite, pinch or sting) should not be handled/touched by a large number of child are - most frogs, some small tropical toads, geckos, chameleons (all of which, are subject to stress), scratchy lizards, king, rat and milk snakes, all terrapins, crabs, West African forest scorpions, Asian millipedes, some large scratchy stick insects and large scratchy tropical beetles. Many children unfortunately panic when a large insect with sharp claws climbs on their person - so the use of these animals must be closely supervised. Fine if it goes onto their shirt - not so good on hand!

Well handled and trained animals that are fine for supervised child contact (not necessarily handling but touching) are - tortoises, Australian blue tongued skinks, some lizards, corn snakes, White's tree frogs, toads, giant West African millipedes, land snails, tropical cockroaches, some tropical beetles, some stick insects and some tarantula spiders.

Which brings us to the subject of hand washing? All workshops where animals are touched should emphasise, at the beginning of the workshop, that children should not put their fingers in mouths and at the end of the workshop hands should be washed with soap and water and if the school wishes - antiseptic hand gel applied. Very young children should be watched by staff and actively discouraged from putting fingers into mouths. This is simply good practice. Wet wipes and hand gel are not a substitute for hand washing!

We ask one more thing of you. It is not fair on the demonstrator if unsupervised children have access to the display area during break times. The demonstrator should have access to the staff toilets or a toilet which is not used by unsupervised children. These arrangements should be sorted out at the beginning of the day. When arranging the timetable please allow a five minute toilet break for the demonstrator mid morning.