Snow joke: like thousands of parents across Britain, I have been scanning the skies with some nervousness this week. My son and daughter, rosy cheeked with sledging, are praying for the snow – and the school closures – to continue. Scrooge-like, as clamouring work commitments drown out the happy cries of children, I'm praying for slush.
Monday, if I'm truthful, was fun. We trudged up to my son's primary school in our wellies to find a cheery teacher juggling snowballs at the school gate and announcing an unscheduled holiday. School staff who had managed to walk to work – and an impressive number had left home at dawn to do so – joined with parents and children in the neighbouring park for a snow fight. It was a terrific community event. On Tuesday, my son's school, following a well thought out contingency procedure, was open for business – one of only two primary schools in the London borough of Camden. My daughter's secondary school, in neighbouring Westminster – where weather conditions were scarcely more severe – remained closed. Faced with these unregulated, seemingly random policies from schools and local authorities, there is only so much hot chocolate and bonhomie a working mother can dispense.
At a time when people are worried enough about keeping their jobs, the cost of school closure is immense. Parents unable to secure emergency childcare have no choice but to stay off work themselves. This translates all too quickly into orders unfulfilled and contracts prejudiced. The Federation of Small Businesses reckons that by the end of the week our flailing economy will have suffered losses worth some £3.5bn.
It's natural to look for the weak link in this chain of disaster and, not unusually, it's teachers who are getting it in the neck. Parenting websites abound with childhood memories of plucky infants, battling their way, Captain Oates style, to school in the Big Snow of the 1960s and '70s and angry demands have been made for school staff to show grit and set an example. According to Margaret Morrissey of the Parents Outloud campaign group, "We are giving children the message that when things get difficult you should stay at home and have fun. Then, when they keep taking sick days from work when they grow up, we wonder why."
I dare say I could have kept my pair indoors on Monday , reciting times tables instead of hurtling downhill on an offcut of laminate flooring, but it's not the effect on their characters I'm most concerned about. And it seems unfair to impose our comfortable schoolroom nostalgia on a profession facing peculiar contemporary challenges. Back in the 1960s, local schools were largely staffed by local teachers. Today particularly in cities where property prices long ago outstripped the wages of public sector workers, teachers are frequently travelling vast distances to get to school.
If the transport system grinds to a halt, as it has across Britain this week, there's not a whole lot teachers, or dinner ladies, or cleaners, or any other workers on whom the smooth running of our schools depend, can do about it.
Put bluntly, as I hope it will be put to Boris Johnson and any other blustering apologist for public services casting around for someone to blame, it's not the teachers who were short of grit this week, it was the roads. For the want of some sand, £3.5 bn was lost. There are lessons, it is said, that cannot be learned at school. Given the weather forecast, I call that fortunate.