Education: The art of first aid and nappies: Sarah Strickland meets pupils who are training to be accomplished baby-sitters

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SCHOOL is over. It is 4pm and all the corridors have emptied quickly. But 11 pupils have chosen not to rush home; they are huddled around a pile of thin white towels on a classroom floor, folding them into different shapes.

Most people would rather not encounter nappies until they must. When they have to learn the procedure, they do so by trial and error, picking up tips from nurses, friends and family. But at Heathfield Community School in Taunton, Somerset, pupils can learn to change, clean, feed and play with a baby long before they have to cope with the real thing.

Or not so long, if they are baby- sitters. Many teenagers supplement their pocket money by baby- sitting, often for very young children. They take on an enormous responsibility when they do so, but until now schools have done nothing to address the kinds of problem pupils may encounter in looking after other people's children in a strange house.

Laurence Leader, the director of community education at Heathfield, last year contacted the British Red Cross about setting up a training course in baby- sitting, similar to one he knew of in Canada. He had received a series of telephone calls from local residents, asking him to recommend pupils to baby-sit. The calls came from newcomers to the area and from people who wanted to follow an evening course.

Mr Leader felt unable to make recommendations. 'The requests threw up all sorts of problems,' he says. 'How could we judge which students were suitable and how could we be sure that they weren't being sent to baby-sit in unacceptable circumstances?'

The Red Cross responded enthusiastically, and after two successful trial runs, the course is oversubscribed. The school now has a flourishing list with the names and phone numbers of trained baby-sitters, the areas they cover and the times that they are available.

To get on the register, pupils must first pass the course, which takes 18 hours and costs pounds 5, then take a letter home asking for their parents' written consent. Any member of the public wishing to obtain the list is sent a letter outlining their own and the baby-sitter's rights and responsibilities. They then complete a registration form so that the school has a record of who uses the list.

Louise Bawden, 16, one of the first to do the course, had always been interested in baby-sitting, but was not sure she could cope in an emergency. Now she looks after several children aged between five and seven. 'I feel much more confident and assertive now and I'm aware of the dangers around the house,' she says.

'One of the children is asthmatic and I'd know what to do if he had an attack. I feel I could cope on my own if I had to. Pay is a very sticky subject, but I know it's my prerogative to bring it up and say how much I charge per hour.' She says her rate is pounds 1.50 an hour (in London it is about pounds 3.50). 'We were also taught to ask the parents for a phone number where they can be contacted, and not to let them go without giving it to us, even if they are in a hurry.'

Girls are advised how to react to a father who makes unwelcome advances when giving the baby- sitter a lift home: by threatening, with conviction, to tell his wife, her parents or the police if he does not stop it at once; and if that fails, by getting out of the car at the first suitable opportunity and going for help.

And how do you refuse a lift from a parent who has obviously had too much to drink? Louise says: 'I would make a polite excuse and phone for a taxi. If they were very drunk I would probably stay the night, because they would not be in a fit state to look after the children. I probably wouldn't baby-sit for them again.'

The final part of the course deals with the most sensitive issues of all: how to cope with children who may be 'unsettled by a family crisis', how to recognise the signs of a physically or emotionally abused child, and what to do if abuse is suspected. Pupils are taught to identify an adult in whom they can confide. 'Obviously you can't go straight to the parents,' says Louise. 'You may be able to have a quiet word with your mum or a schoolteacher.'

Practical work, covered largely through demonstration, role play and discussion, includes first aid, resuscitation, accident prevention and emergencies in the home. The Red Cross hopes that the course will be taken up by other schools, and has produced a manual so that suitable schoolteachers can provide the course, with help from a qualified first-aid trainer.

Pupils on the course at Heathfield were being taught by Chris Jessop, a local health visitor who arrived at the class clutching a baby doll, disposable and towelling nappies, baby lotion, cotton wool, bottles and baby milk. 'We had a real baby at the start of the course but it was just impossible,' she says. 'You can't hand a real baby around like this one.' It is easy to see why a real baby might complain: 11 pairs of hands trying to put on nappies, sticking in pins, wiping baby's bottom ('always from front to back'), holding it in different positions, feeding and dealing with wind. 'Don't forget, if a little boy decides to do a wee, you have no control over where it's going,' Ms Jessop reminds them, as the doll lies spread- eagled on a towel.

Wayne, the only boy in the class, joins in enthusiastically: he is already doing a GCSE in child care. His friends have not taunted him about the baby-sitting course, and anyway, it is a good way to earn a bit of spare cash.

Most of the pupils, who receive a certificate if they pass, see the course as an opportunity to add another string to their bow. Mr Leader believes that it teaches some essential skills, such as first aid, that all pupils ought to learn. 'Anything learnt now will be good for ever,' he says. 'We have had parents asking our trained baby-sitters what to do.'

Stephen Jones, the head of Heathfield, wants to see the course integrated into the curriculum: 'All of us are vulnerable if we do not have this sort of knowledge, even if we never go baby-sitting,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)