What are they really taking from the fire?

Whenever the Great Fire of London topic comes round, teacher forums start discussing setting fire to models of Tudor houses. Colleagues comment on how excited the children become, and my heart sinks.

I love a bit of stimulation in school, but in this instance I feel that the activity and the learning are in danger of becoming disconnected. The children will be roused. But will it be because they have learnt how a fire behaves, or is it because of the act of setting fire to something? Are they thrilling at the pattern of the conflagration or at the wanton destruction? When their parents ask what they did at school today what will they say? Will they talk about the colours of the flames and how the fire breaks prevented the spread? I seriously doubt it. Most 7 year olds I know would answer “we learnt about setting fire to houses”.

Fire is integral to this topic. But sadly in 2017 we have witnessed that fire can still have tragic consequences and is a real threat to communities. Because of this danger, we need to question a little more deeply what messages we might create beyond the curriculum links that we intend.

I agree that they need to have seen fire to describe it more effectively, but there are ways to observe flames to see the colours and movement. Quietly watching a candle flicker as you draw it and write down descriptive words is a calmer way to think about fire. Looking at the flame move as you blow on it and sniffing the smoke when the wick goes out can stimulate thoughtful ideas. I really question if we want to be making their pulses race as we burn down houses (albeit models).

I thought long and hard over whether I was over-reacting to this, so I asked the experts at the London Fire Brigade what they felt about this activity. The response from the Juvenile Firesetters Team was unequivocal. They did not feel it was a helpful activity. In fact they went so far as to state that they had worked with young firesetters whose behaviours had been triggered by this topic. However, there was great enthusiasm for using this as a brilliant opportunity to ensure fire safety was brought into school teaching.

In the past I have had the education officers from the Fire Brigade come into school on a number of occasions and it has always been a great visit with many positive outcomes. The children think about what can cause fire, how to respond and be safe, and get a free visit from an inspiring role model, someone who puts out dangerous fires and save lives.

I know not all children will rush out and light a fire. Our pupils take many varied things from our lessons and we need to consider the range of what they may be. If even a few learn that setting fire to houses is exciting is it worth it?