Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Thursday, 7 January 2010

How schools decide on snow closures

By Gary Eason
Education Correspondent, BBC News

School closed
Icy conditions around a school can cause a school to close

Tens of thousands of children are enjoying an extended Christmas holiday after schools were closed because of the bad weather across the UK.

About 9,000 schools were shut across England on Wednesday, with 950 closing today in Wales, and at least 250 in Scotland and 16 in Northern Ireland.

But in some places the situation was different in near neighbouring schools, causing confusion among parents.

In Manchester a council leader added to the confusion by appearing to criticise closure decisions.

Sir Richard Leese said he expected schools to be open "unless there are any exceptional circumstances" and suggested many of the closures "seem to be unnecessary".

He was criticised in turn by Liberal Democrat leader Simon Ashley, who called Sir Richard's e-mail, sent to other councillors, a "cheap shot".

But what all this illustrates is that - for all the talk of centralised control - head teachers still have a high degree of autonomy.

Individual schools must decide whether or not to close due to snow or adverse weather conditions
Welsh Assembly Government

Governments take the view that this is an issue for local decision making.

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson said: "Individual schools must decide whether or not to close due to snow or adverse weather conditions.

"This decision is taken at local level as head teachers need to consider whether staff and pupils are able to get to and from school safely in their area."

Likewise the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in England tells local authorities to delegate as far as possible.

It says they might take area-wide decisions in respect of their community and voluntary controlled schools if they wish to adopt a consistent approach, but points out that they cannot oblige foundation or voluntary aided schools or academies to close.

Every lesson counts

The department says head teachers are very good at managing risk.

It advises them to "take a proportionate approach", balancing the risks arising from less supervision, late journeys home, "minor slips and bumps" and so on against the disruption to pupils' learning - reminding them that "every lesson counts".

That catchphrase is from a government anti-truancy drive.

The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Mick Brookes - himself a highly experienced head teacher - said: "Yes, every lesson is important, but so is every limb too.

"The problem we have is that we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. Any head will endeavour to open their school, but not under any circumstances."

One deputy head of a primary school in Hertfordshire, Roger Billing, told BBC News: "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."

How it works

The decision to close a school is taken usually by the head teacher, probably in consultation with other members of the school's senior management team and the chair of governors.

The key issue is the safety of the pupils, which can be affected by different factors:

1. Can they get to school? In the case of secondary schools in particular, children may have to travel many miles. If transport is impossible, they cannot get there.

2. Can they get home? It might be fine in the morning, but if severe weather is expected to prevent a return journey, the school may decide to close.

3. Is the site safe? Adjacent schools may take different views on the slippery conditions if, say, one has a very sloping site.

4. Can the staff get there? Often they live a considerable distance from where they work - although whether or not staffing levels are adequate is also a matter for local discretion, other than with very young children, for whom there are legal requirements.

But these adverse conditions highlight another issue, the apparently conflicting advice from different kinds of authorities.

Traffic organisations and emergency services might be urging people to travel only if their journeys are "essential".

The DCSF says that, in its view, "essential travel includes pupils going to school to keep learning, and school staff going to work".

Kent County Council's guidance says: "If staff cannot attend their usual place of work they should contact their local school to see whether they can assist staff there."

Realising that this might set another scare hare running, the guidance adds: "For security reasons, it would be best for teaching staff to make themselves known to their local schools before any crisis arises so that they have time to do the necessary security checks."

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