Classifieds powered by Gulf News

It is a human tragedy when schools close due to a harmless spider

Children are disconnected enough from nature as it is. By choosing fear over fact, London schools only makes things worse

Image Credit: Getty Images
A classroom of young boys and girls drawing on one large piece of paper. The children are wearing school uniform while their teacher watches.
Gulf News

It should be a cause for celebration. In one of the most nature-denuded countries on the planet, in its most wildlife-starved city, on #worldanimalday, a rampaging creature caused the closure of four schools. Species other than humans are thriving in London!

What terrifying creature has caused four head teachers to close their schools? A tiger escaped from a zoo? Britain’s first wild wolf for four centuries? A mastodon going berserk after being reconstructed by mad scientists? The first great white shark to be spotted in the Thames?

No: the petrifying menace now imperilling young children’s educations, and causing massive headaches for working parents, is an ordinary, harmless species of spider.

The noble false-widow spider is, as the professional entomologists of the charity Buglife put it, a ponderous, solitary and non-aggressive spider. It has lived among us, in our homes, schools, and no doubt, hospitals, for decades. According to Buglife, across the whole of Europe, there are just two definitive cases of it ever biting someone. Both are described as a mild sting, about as bad as a wasp or a nettle. Have either of these dangerous species recently shut down a school? If we are rationally assessing risks, a bee would be more hazardous, a domestic dog far more dangerous — and let’s not terrify ourselves by properly considering those lethal metal beasts that prowl outside every school gate and emit toxic fumes every single day. This would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic. When politicians declare that people are fed up of experts, it spells trouble. When schools fail to consult experts, and pass ludicrous prejudices on to children, it is more than troubling.

The head teachers ultimately decided to close their schools, but they took advice from somewhere. I’ve put a series of questions to Newham council, hoping to shed light on this advice. They haven’t responded so I can only surmise the teachers listened to someone on the council’s “environmental team” who knows nothing about spiders, Googled a bit, and panicked. Are these head teachers really so credulous that they didn’t think to contact a professional entomologist to properly evaluate the risk posed by this species?

“The safety and well-being of pupils and staff is always our number one priority,” drones one school letter (the three school letters I’ve seen are so similar they could’ve been drafted by the same person).

No reply

Toxic insecticides would almost certainly pose more of a hazard to the children than an “infestation” of easily avoidable spiders. What kind of chemicals are being deployed? I’ve asked the council and, again, there’s been no reply. One head teacher has claimed his school could be closed until after half-term — nearly a month.

We live in an era where we are more disconnected than ever from our fellow species, on whom we ultimately depend for our survival. We also live in a time when many schools are heroically defying financial pressures to provide more outdoor schooling for their pupils.

Where best can we begin to learn about nature? The countryside? A forest? No. Right here. Wherever we are now — in a city, suburb or village. The presence of these spiders in Newham is a wonderful opportunity for children to learn about spiders’ lifestyles, their important ecological role and how our lives are enriched by the flora and fauna of planet Earth.

Unfortunately, it is not the children who need to be taught to respect and live alongside other species — it’s the teachers and all the other grown-ups who have created this ignorant insanity.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Patrick Barkham writes for the Guardian on natural history.

Loading...