Taking the spark out of science

Health and safety fears are squeezing practical experiments out of the classroom.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

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Health and safety concerns are putting a dampener on school science practicals. A survey of teachers and scientists finds that everything from keeping snails to swabbing for cheek cells, running model steam engines to burning peanuts, is now being avoided because it is seen as too risky. The result is that children are being turned off science – with experts fearing for the next generation of chemists and physicists.

Julian Wigley, who has taught science at a Birmingham comprehensive for the past decade, says that he has noticed a ‘move away from experiments considered too risky’. When practicals are carried out, they tend to involve kids observing the teacher rather than doing it for themselves. According to Tony Ashmore, head of education at the Royal Society of Chemistry, ‘experiments are more often demonstrated than carried out – and teachers are more cautious about what they might demonstrate’.

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) has noted a decline in science practicals, and an increasingly ‘narrow and mechanistic’ approach, with teachers doing the bare minimum to fulfil national curriculum requirements (1). Risk assessment procedures encourage teachers to stick to standardised experiments rather than try anything a bit different. Children’s curiousity is curtailed, says Wigley. ‘In the old days, when kids asked “what happens if…?”, teachers could often say “try it out”. Now they might say “I will tell you what happens”, and draw a diagram on the board.’

Jack Pridham, emeritus professor of biochemistry at Royal Holloway, University of London, says it was the ‘smells and flashes and bangs’ that drew him to chemistry as a boy. ‘Now all the exciting stuff has gone out of the window.’ Teachers say that they are increasingly cautious about old explosive favourites – burning hydrogen gas in air to create water, the thermite reaction (producing iron from a mix of iron oxide and aluminium), or the reaction between phosphorous and oxygen. The fractional distillation of crude oil (to show its different components) is avoided, because crude oil is considered carcinogenic (cancer-causing) – apparently some schools use ink and water instead. Others have replaced mercury with spirit thermometers, although spirits are not generally as accurate.

In physics, there is a wariness of anything involving high pressures, and even model steam engines are seen as risky. Meanwhile many biology teachers steer away from dissections, worrying about BSE and other infections. Taking blood from a finger prick is generally avoided on the grounds of AIDS risks, as is taking cells from a cheek swab. Sampling spit – to develop bacteria, or demonstrate the activity of saliva enzymes – is viewed with caution.

Yet most of these fears are groundless. Peter Borrows, director of the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services (CLEAPSS), says that in fact ‘almost the safest place for any child to be is the school laboratory’. According to Borrows, statistics going back to the 1960s show that science contributes a steady 0.8 per cent of all serious pupil accidents in schools, compared to 60 per cent in PE and one percent in toilets and cloakrooms. Given that there are generally between 4000 and 5000 serious accidents per year, this means that only around 35 take place during science lessons, even though millions of pupils spend several hours of every week in science classes.

There has been no explosion of claims against science teachers. ‘Since 1975, three teachers have been sued successfully’, says Borrows. ‘And to be blunt, they were nutters. Science teachers aren’t at risk of being sued.’

No kid is going to get AIDS from pricking his finger in a science class – the risks of the average rugby match would be greater, though still virtually non-existent. In Wigley’s view, ‘the response is over the top, far out of proportion to the actual hazard. A substance may be a mild carcinogen, but you’re probably more at risk from standing next to the M6 for an hour’. And the amount of spit that teenage boys throw at each other in the playground puts science spit samples into perspective.

So who’s driving the overreaction? Many teachers blame health and safety regulations, claiming that experiments are banned and their hands are tied.

Health and safety regulators blame teachers’ overcaution. Borrows claims that regulations ‘would permit almost anything that would be done 30 years ago. Contrary to all sorts of myths and rumours, practically nothing is banned’. Teachers who avoid practicals, he says, ‘are taking the easy way out – because their classes are a handful, or they haven’t got time to practise the experiment’. John Lawrence deputy chief executive of the Association for Science Education (ASE), a body that advises on science practice in schools, blames ‘scaremongering’ and ‘Chinese whispers’ for people ‘misinterpreting new guidelines’.

It seems that both regulators and teachers are partly to blame. Official regulations require teachers to carry out a risk assessment for any science practical, which for procedures out of the ordinary can be quite time consuming. Rather than banning experiments outright, guidelines from bodies such as the ASE and CLEAPSS tend to say: ‘You can do this, but you should be aware of risks x, y and z, and you have to decide whether your students can cope with it.’

The ASE’s manual, Safeguards in the School Laboratory, is packed with warnings about everyday laboratory substances: ‘enzymes, including those in biological washing powders, may cause allergic reactions’; ‘stains and indicators are often impure and their harmful effects may not have been well researched. Materials which react with substances in living tissue should always be somewhat suspect’ (2). Another section offers precautions about ‘taking samples of breath’: ‘teachers should be aware of possible dizziness or fainting from forced breathing, such as hyperventilation, breathing too quickly or slowly, or holding of breath.’

Documents say that procedures are permitted, only to suggest that they might not be advised. ‘Contrary to what many teachers believe, the use of saliva for investigations is, and always has been, allowed in schools’, says the ASE. ‘However, there is always some risk of spreading saliva-borne infections such as tuberculosis.’ (3) CLEAPSS says that the peanut-burning investigation (to measure the energy contained) is allowed, but that ‘the consequences of going ahead if a student with a severe nut allergy is affected could be severe’. As well as worrying about students in that class, ‘thought must be given to who will be entering the lab after this particular lesson; small amounts of peanut debris could trigger an allergic reaction in a sensitive individual’ (4).

Advice often varies about what is allowed. AIDS fears led the Department for Education to recommend that ‘taking blood and cell samples should cease’, but the department later reversed its advice for cell samples, and most local authorities lifted their bans – except for Lancashire and Northern Ireland, who still forbid cheek swabbing. Later central government decided that local education authorities should be free to take their own call on blood sampling (5). Then there are conflicting recommendations from insurance companies. CLEAPSS complains that ‘some insurance company engineers…have insisted that our written scheme of examination [of model steam engines] do not meet [their] requirements’, with companies insisting that trains be fitted with a pricey pressure gauge (6).

Teachers for their part are often oversensitive to regulatory bodies’ ‘what ifs…?’. ‘Staff are very cautious’, says Wigley. ‘If one body advises against an experiment and one body doesn’t, they’ll go with the one that says don’t do it. There is a big fear factor.’ Tony Ashmore agrees – ‘it’s about a risk-averse culture, rather than just the regulations themselves. Teachers err on the side of caution’.

Some of the questions teachers ask the CLEAPSS helpline show confusion about where to draw the line. ‘Is it alright to burn a cowpat?’ asked one; ‘Can I stick my head in a bucket of water?’, asked another. More representative questions included: ‘I’ve recently read that Giant African land snails can cause meningitis. What should I do with the colony we have maintained in the school for several years?’; ‘I have been told that it’s illegal to bring frogspawn into school from a local pond. Is this correct?’

Whoever is responsible, kids are definitely the losers. Science becomes about dead facts learnt out of a textbook, rather than live conclusions derived from testing and experiment. Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford University, says that ‘if you treat chemistry as a theoretical subject it becomes very dry – some of its pleasures were its stinks and bangs’.

Today’s top scientists say that (official and unofficial) practicals sparked their interest in the subject. One talks about his experiments ‘in the kitchen at home, doing all sorts of things with chemicals that you can no longer obtain’; another confesses: ‘I spent a lot of my youth making explosives.’ Today’s young people are turning cold on science, with universities closing their chemistry departments and falling numbers of pupils opting for science A-levels. Pridham, who runs the website Chemophilia to promote interest in chemistry, believes that ‘the serious decline in interest in chemistry could be partly rectified by an improvement in practical work’.

The demise of the practical bodes ill for the next generation of scientists. Atkins worries that ‘chemistry is a very practical subject – if that skill isn’t developed early, there is a risk that children won’t go on to become great chemists’. His antidote? ‘Teachers should go back to doing the things that they used to do, which captured the imagination of their kids.’

(1) Ofsted subject reports 2002/03, Science in secondary schools, February 2004

(2) Safeguards in the School Laboratory, ASE, 10th edition 1996

(3) Safeguards in the School Laboratory, ASE, 10th edition 1996

(4) CLEAPSS leaflet, ‘Are we allowed to…?’

(5) Account on blood and cell sampling from CLEAPSS leaflet, ‘Are we allowed to…?’ and Safeguards in the School Laboratory, ASE, 10th edition 1996

(6) Steam engines, in CLEAPSS Laboratory Handbook

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Topics Science & Tech


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