Page last updated at 17:56 GMT, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Schools braced for fresh snowfall

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

car on snowy road
Schools in rural communities can face considerable transport problems

Thousands of schools are having to decide whether to close again on Thursday because of forecast snow.

Forecasters expect "severe weather" across the English Midlands and West Country, and in south and east Wales.

The Met Office said snowfall would move up from the south during the early hours of Thursday, continuing through the day and disrupting travel.

But on Tuesday, forecasters faced some criticism for having predicted worse conditions than materialised.

England's Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said that in retrospect more schools might have stayed open.

"I have a huge amount of understanding for those parents for whom life has been difficult, but in the end these decisions are made by the heads of our local authorities, they have to make the right decision often in difficult circumstances, and I think they have been doing it right," he said.

The forecasters say central Scotland might also have more snow, though the probability of that is lower.

'Early decision'

One of the areas right in the path of the snow expected further south is Birmingham - whose city council ordered the closure on Tuesday of all its schools.

sheep in snowy field
Derbyshire is one of the areas expected to be hit again

A statement on the council's grid for learning said that decision had been taken "based on the weather forecast and in order to minimise confusion and chaos on Tuesday", with its highways department advising people not to travel unless essential.

"It was important to make an early decision in order to give parents a chance to plan alternative arrangements and avoid children turning up at school on Tuesday morning to find it closed," the statement said.

But it continued: "From Wednesday 04 February the decision to close any school is determined by the governing body and head teacher of each school."

A spokeswoman described this as the normal procedure.

Similarly in Dudley the borough council closed all schools on Tuesday. On Wednesday they were back in operation but with an eye on the weather.

Dudley council said: "There is no blanket closure of schools scheduled for Thursday but any decision to close individual schools will be made by the head teachers."

Ease of access

Wiltshire has faced something of a dilemma because of a shortage of salt for its highways.

At Kingsdown School in Swindon the head teacher, Wendy Taylor, is determined to remain open if possible, as she has all week.

"Lots of schools closed today. We haven't and we have had no problems," she said.

She has emergency procedures in place and will take a view on the conditions again on Thursday morning, notifying people if necessary before 0700 GMT.

"But we are on a main road so access is pretty easy," Mrs Taylor said.

Not so at The Chantry High School in Martley, Worcestershire, whose head teacher Stephen Jowett has the weather forecast on a tab on his desktop computer.

'Duty of care'

"On Tuesday I got up at half past four in the morning and rang six other head teachers, and the primary school head across the road here, and we all came to the conclusion - we should close," Mr Jowett said.

"I will do that tomorrow. At the moment I have no evidence of snow other than a website that's telling me we are going to get some snow overnight."

He is somewhat annoyed by the furore about whether schools had made the right call.

"Head teachers have a statutory obligation, they have a duty of care to assess whether their school site is safe," he said.

"Some are responsible for 1,500 or 1,700 kids, and the staff.

"On Monday when we came in and it started to snow, lots of parents were ringing up asking to collect their children early.

"We are in a very rural community. We have lots of people who live down hill and dale and it's difficult and can even be dangerous for them to get out.

"I can make the school site relatively safe but if we get a big dump of snow it's hard to achieve that."

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