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National Curriculum: Animal Welfare

Volume 759: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any proposals to include animal welfare in the national curriculum in schools.

My Lords, the new primary science curriculum, introduced from September 2014, focuses on the essential scientific knowledge that young people need to be educated citizens. It teaches primary pupils about the requirements for animals to survive: appropriate habitat, food, water and air. Subjects such as citizenship and PSHE also provide opportunities for pupils to learn about animal welfare, and teachers are free to decide what further activities they offer on this subject.

I thank the Minister for that positive reply. As he says, it is important for young people to know about animals—not only domestic animals or farm animals, but wild animals and the environment. Is he aware that the RSPCA did a survey in 2014 of 800 teachers, 95% of whom thought that it ought to be taught to young people? Indeed, 83% thought it ought to be part of the national curriculum.

I am aware of the survey to which the noble Lord refers, and I know that the RSPCA teaches around 4,000 teachers about this every year. We feel that it is very helpful for young people to learn about animal welfare in the national curriculum, but we do not think it is right to include it, certainly not at this stage. We have a long way to go to make sure that the majority of pupils in this country have an education in core academic subjects first.

This year the Government are reviewing their codes on how to care for dogs, cats and horses. Does my noble friend agree that it is important that children are made aware of those new codes? If so, will the Government be offering any advice about their inclusion in school timetables?

As I said, I agree entirely that animal welfare is an important subject for pupils to learn about, but we have to recognise the low base from which we are starting education in this country. When we came to power, fewer than one in five pupils attending a comprehensive school was getting that core suite of academic subjects that would be a basic expectation in many countries, and certainly in any private school. We have recovered substantially from that position: now nearly 40% get that core suite, but the Question underestimates the low base from which we are starting.

My Lords, will the Minister commend those organisations that take the trouble to take animals, particularly dogs, into care establishments and schools for children with learning disabilities? It has been shown that those youngsters improve their behaviour on encountering animals. Maybe this is one area where we could increase attendance.

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. Organisations such as Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Blue Cross, Cats Protection, Dogs Trust and PDSA do excellent work. I am sure she will be interested to know that, under the Government’s successful free school programme, we will have the Milton Keynes special free school opening next year. It will be a 70-place alternative provision primary school for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. It will incorporate a forest approach. They will keep chickens and will be taught by an experienced poultry keeper.

Does the Minister agree that hunting with dogs is a cruel and unnecessary sport? If so, how would he explain to young people in schools that the Tory party is threatening to repeal the hunting ban?

If we offer all our children a really good education, which we are trying to do, they can make their minds up on these issues for themselves.

Does my noble friend agree that when topics such as the use of animals in scientific experiments are dealt with in schools they should be dealt with in a balanced way, and that children should be able, as he has just said, to balance the various arguments on different sides?

I entirely agree. Children taught properly should be able to balance all these arguments. They should be taught about argument and they should have enough scientific knowledge to understand what is happening.

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that it is slightly unfortunate that he chose to use this really quite innocuous Question to make a very crude party-political point? Would he also accept that, in doing so, he undermines the morale of teachers who have been working in the system for very many years and doing the very best they can, sometimes in quite difficult circumstances? Would he further he accept that the best primary schools have animals for the children to look after and that is how they learn about animal welfare?

As I think the noble Baroness has heard me say on a number of occasions, I regard teaching as the most noble of professions. It is certainly the most important profession at this time as far as the future of this country is concerned. But I think we just have to get real. Under the previous Government, the number of pupils getting a core suite of academic subjects in education slumped. We are recovering from that position, but until we start loading up the curriculum with extras on a compulsory basis we have to recover educationally to provide our pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with that core cultural literacy that they need.

My Lords, the Minister gave a rather strange reply to an earlier question on the Hunting Act: that, somehow or other, properly educated pupils will be able to make up their own minds on the subject. It is not a question of making up one’s own mind on the subject. When a law of the land has been passed by both Houses of Parliament, the assumption is that people will obey it. I hope that he thoroughly agrees with that in relation to the Hunting Act.