School closures: the hard lesson for parents

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The Independent Online

To parents walking the precarious tightrope between childcare and work, it seems that schools are always the first part of society to throw in the towel when the snow threatens. While their bosses expect them to turn up whatever the weather, it can seem that different rules apply for teachers.

Children of course see it rather differently. Happy memories are made of the day lessons were cancelled to let you go sledging and building snowmen with your mates. For headteachers who more often than not have to decide to keep the gates locked, it can seem a lonely and thankless choice.

Today, as deep snow blanketed large swathes of the UK, thousands of schools were closed. In the Scottish Borders, Midlothian, East Lothian and Aberdeenshire councils said none were open. Hampshire County Council said 80 per cent were shut, and it was a similar story in Hertfordshire, Wales and Gloucestershire. Many big conurbations in the north and the Midlands saw hundreds close.

Some pupils will now not have attended class since the week before Christmas – and are taking full advantage of the extended holiday, which shows no sign of letting up. But the knock-on effect can to society can be huge. A significant proportion of the 40 per cent of the workforce who stayed at home today will have done so because of childcare problems, leading to shortages of key workers in the NHS and other vital services and costing the economy millions of pounds.

It is no surprise that nanny agencies and emergency childminder services are reporting record levels of inquiries and bookings. But it can still seem like a lottery as to whether your child’s school remains open or is closed. Some schools will tell parents that teachers cannot get in to work because of blocked roads, while others will cite lack of heating or burst pipes. Others don’t even give a reason, expecting the snow on the ground to be explanation enough.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said that the decision tends to rest with individual headteachers. But in metropolitan areas, where most schools will face the same problems of suspended transport links, a blanket closure may be ordered by the authority.

“The sheer numbers closing is an indication of just how severe the weather is,” said an LGA spokeswoman. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was a head for 27 years. He recalled closing his school just half a dozen times over that period, and then only in exceptional circumstances.

For heads, the trick is predicting what the weather will do, he said. “It is important to let parents know early that you are going to shut so they can plan. But then if that snow doesn’t turn up you can look silly. They may also be able to get to school but we have to be sure they will be able to get home again at the end of the day,” he added.

“The decision is taken in conjunction with chairs of governors and it is important that that decision is shared. 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. Most parents will be prepared for this just as they do during the summer holidays. Generally speaking, parents are appreciative of what you do.”

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