Diary of a Primary School Mum: 'Is keeping tadpoles in a jar in the classroom really so cruel?'

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The Independent Online

Back after half-term, and Claire, who normally can't wait to go to school, is showing great resistance, cowering behind my legs and refusing to go in. Miss Perry offers some bait. "Claire," she says, "over the holidays something incredible happened. The tadpoles have become froglets." My daughter is off in a flash to join her classmates crowded round a tank.

Reception has been studying life-cycles. Miss Perry is to mini-beasts what Lord Robert Winston is to babies. Not only has she grown frogs from spawn, but a few weeks ago she nurtured caterpillars into butterflies. When the cocoons finally hatched, the twins were so excited. "They went pop, pop, pop, one after the other," Claire said, gesticulating like a conductor waving a baton, "and one by one, out came these beautiful painted ladies."

Miss Perry fed them home-made nectar (sugar water), and the next day a thrilling spectacle took place as the black-and-yellow speckled butterflies were released into the wild.

As well as being enriching, this whole exercise was wonderfully educational, so it was with great dismay that I learnt that the RSPCA has just called the practice of keeping animals in schools "cruel". Granted, they're referring more to bigger animals (such as hamsters, which shouldn't be disturbed during the day), but nevertheless, their concern extends to charting the growth of tadpoles in a jar. They say the shrieks and grabbing hands of affectionate but boisterous pupils make the classroom a frightening place .

I'm in favour of good animal-welfare practice, don't get me wrong. When my kids intentionally step on ants I get upset. Thwacking at wasps with a newspaper is a last resort (I'm allergic) safety measure. Life is sacrosanct and should be respected. But not having tadpoles or caterpillars in the classroom is surely a step too far.

I call my best friend who is a primary-school teacher. She's reasonable, she understands how important it is for children to see the natural world first-hand, she'll agree that this latest RSPCA guidance is a tad extreme, won't she?

"I'd be guided by the RSPCA," she says, without hesitation. "I've never had a classroom pet because I don't think it's a good place to keep animals. Children get a lot of enjoyment from growing plants and they can learn all about life-cycles and mini-beasts by going on outings and school trips, observing animals in their natural habitat."

I tell her that Miss Perry arranged a school trip to the local woods, which I helped out on, and that I ended up on all fours, digging through undergrowth in search of mini-beasts. And that the mini-beasts were off sick that day, so all we found were a couple of worms, teased into a margarine tub for "observation". There's a silence. I reassure her that leaves accompanied the worms and that holes were poked in the lid. I'm not certain when I hang up, however, that I'm not about to be shopped to the animal-welfare charity right there and then.

I later ask my husband if he thinks it's so wrong to keep tadpoles in the classroom. "It's animal welfare gone mad," he says, and I pound the air, grateful for vindication. But he goes on to tell me how, as a kid, his favourite experiment was plucking the legs off daddy-long-legs and then slowly squashing their bodies.

I feel faint and dizzy and stick a finger in each ear, then find myself at the computer, searching for the RSPCA cruelty line.