Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Thursday, 7 January 2010

Business leaders criticise school closures

school girl
Many pupils have been sent home from school because of the snow

Business leaders have criticised head teachers, saying many have closed schools too readily because of snow.

With thousands of schools across the UK closed due to the snow, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says lost work days are affecting many companies.

The FSB is calling on the government and head teachers to work out a code for school closures.

But head teachers said the decision to close a school had to be made on the basis of local issues alone.

Stephen Alambritis, chief spokesman for the FSB, said a company employing four people would lose half its workforce if two people had to stay at home to look after children sent home from school.

There is a concern that head teachers may be closing schools unnecessarily
Stephen Alambritis, FSB

"There is concern that the vast majority of absences from work is simply because parents have to stay at home to look after the children," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We appreciate that, but we do have a worry that head teachers and the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Association of Directors of Children's Services haven't really sat down and thought through a code of practice to make sure wherever possible that it's only in exceptional circumstances that the school is closed.

"We all know that the vast majority of children are within a small catchment area to attend school and so there is a concern that head teachers may be closing schools unnecessarily."

Heads' decision

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said decisions had to be made on the basis of the each school's local situation.

Dr Dunford said there was a "whole range" of information to be taken into account, from the operation of local buses, to whether a school was on a main, easily accessible road or in the middle of a housing estate surrounded by un-gritted roads.

"It can be a very difficult and a very local decision, that's why it's right that head teachers should make these decisions," he said.

We trust heads to make the right decision for their school
Department for Children, Schools and Families

He said the move away from secondary school places being offered on the basis of catchment area, with the focus on parental choice, had led to more pupils not living within walking distance of school.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "These are never easy decisions, but we cannot and should not dictate closures from Whitehall when we don't know local circumstances.

"We trust heads to make the right decision for their school."

Teaching staff

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said snow did not fall evenly across the country and so schools were best placed to make their own decisions.

Mr Brookes said head teachers may be forced to close schools if not enough members of staff were able to get in.

"My colleagues will try and keep their schools open but there are judgement calls they have to make in order to make those sometimes difficult decisions.

"Every school will have contingency plans for these sorts of occasions and it's not just snow, it could be swine flu, it could be the boiler breaking down."

Mr Brookes said schools would also ensure they kept parents well informed about closures over the cold spell.

Businesses themselves could help employees affected by school closures, he added.

"There are some businesses that operate a creche, so where there are difficulties, children are able to come in and occupy themselves in the workplace."

We asked for comments on this story. Here is a selection of those received:

As a teacher, I am very keen to get into school, but I live in a village and it is impossible to get out of my side road, let alone onto the main roads; so as much as I would like and need to be at work, I can't! I also have the safety of my young child to consider and I will not do anything to put him or myself in danger. So before criticism is aired, please consider the bigger picture and think about the reasons why schools are not open and why teachers are unable to be there.

Teachers also have their own lives and families to consider. Something else to consider is that if bus companies understandably decide not to run, then schools in rural locations are stuck and school's have to work with a skeleton staff and alternative timetable or decide to close! Most schools have a website which should provide work for children at home in these sorts of circumstances.
Annie Chatfield, Banbury

The decision to close a school is difficult. Since most teachers no longer live in the rural areas where they work many (80% in our case) have to travel distances to get to school. Having 250 pupils and 3 members of staff is not really an option.
john Jones, Cheltenham

We spent a lot of time deciding on whether to close our school. We have a thousand people on the site. They have to come down a narrow un-gritted road. Pupils travels in some cases long distances. They do not walk to school. Some staff also have to travel long distances. The school site itself was under nearly 30cm of snow. All the walkways and steps have got to be cleared. Our caretakers started doing that at 6am this morning. We were on the site by 6.45am this morning having spent time last night discussing the situation. Tomorrow morning we expect to open the school. But we will again be onsite by 6.45am. Today we emailed staff a series of tasks and pupils have access to the VLE to complete work. So as many School Leaders know - you have to balance many different factors in making your decision. We do not close lightly. It is not in our interest.
David Jones, Pontefract

As a teacher whose school has closed I would say that the decision wasn't taken lightly. However, with several inches of snow on the ground and more forecast it would be logistically impossible for many teachers and pupils to get to school, never mind getting back if any more snow falls.

And of course, the met office are advising people not to partake in non-urgent travel, many local buses are not running and many school bus services are also cancelled.
Becky, United Kingdom

The small firms should be venting their anger at the local authorities who failed to grit the local roads properly... as chair of governors at our local primary we have now had to close our school until Monday as the local authority can not grit the side roads and can not clear the snow.. If some one was to fall and break their leg or worse still a car skid and hit a child there would be an out cry.....
Deboarah Henley, Salford

Councils could add the school bus routes to their priority gritting. Schools are often closed because contract bus services won't run. Large schools often close when more local pupils could attend school even if they could not follow their normal timetable.
Teacher, North Yorkshire

There are several issues here. Firstly, whilst children may live within a catchment area, there are also many who may have to travel several miles at a time when the police advised against all non-essential travel. Secondly, the majority of staff have to travel as they do not live with the 'catchment area'. Rural schools also presents another problem as even if the main roads are clear, the lanes will still be impassable. Thirdly, since when have schools been a baby-sitting service? If a school is closed perhaps it is a good opportunity for parents to actually spend time with their children.
Sue Dennis, Douglas, Isle of Man

Have they stepped out of their offices lately? I tried to walk to my school at 8:00AM through 8 inches of snow. I got about halfway and was then told by some year sevens from my school that no-one was there. That's right and the teachers had not even phoned up real radio to inform us that our school was shut. When i got back home I checked again and they had not added my school until about 9:00AM after school would normally start. These businesses, do they not realise we have to walk to school. The receptionists did not even make it to our school nor did the cleaners or the caretaker. They should think about how it effects us kids first before they say anything!!!!
School_Boy_2010, Bolton

If the closure of a school is to do with the local area, how come two primary schools in my area have been shut but all of the others are still open. I am a trainee teacher but think there is no need to shut the schools for this weather. If some children who live further away can't make it, that's fine, and I am sure most teachers would just have to set out in plenty of time like any other employee in the country. The school I am on placement at rarely shuts, however I do understand head teachers are under a lot of pressure with health and safety. A system for each town needs to be sorted and fast, it seems unfair that some children will have a day off today when the school across the road have lessons!
Charlotte, Tamworth

As a deputy head of a primary school, I was party to the discussions and planning that goes into the decision to close the school. We have to take a huge amount of factors into consideration, whether the children can get to school, whether the staff can get to school (some who live 45 minutes away on a good day!) and if it is actually safe. I am not someone who appreciates some of the mad health and safety things we see day to day, but having gone for a short walk to the shop this morning and seen five cars smash into pavements and one into the back of a parked car - I think that asking our children to walk to school, with people still driving on un-gritted roads, is just daft. We take closures seriously, but the fact still remains, as much as children being at school allows people to go to work - we are not babysitters!
Roger Billing, Potters Bar

Personally my children have found the journey to school traumatic in the cold, icy, treacherous conditions. If the head teacher had any sense he would close the school. Humph!
Mrs Pomperdown, Yorkshire

Surely the most important thing in these situations is the health and safety of the children. If they can get to the school safely and there be enough adults to safeguard them while they are there then the school should open. If it is not safe for them to walk or be driven to school then their parents should choose to keep them safe at home. Although schools are not a babysitting service they are an important part of the economic system and no school should close unless it really has to.
Hayley, Essex

The last thing we need is a National Curriculum for weather relating to local school closures!
Richard Gentle, Wakefield / West Yorkshire

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