Mary Dejevsky: Must snow close so many schools?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One way and another there seemed to be a lot of children in evidence around London last week, shopping, sledging, or just hanging out. It wasn't half-term; it was a "snow day" (or rather days). Fresh snowfalls yesterday brought more school closures: around 900 shut in Scotland, 650 in Northern Ireland and 70 in Cumbria. This is an awful lot of children given the day off.

And perhaps we should just accept that this is the order of things. After all, if 200 people are stuck on a train between London and Brighton, there is no public transport south of Croydon, and hundreds more people are stuck in their cars overnight between Edinburgh and Glasgow, it's a bit much to expect children to get on the snow-shoes (à la rural Canada) or seek out the family shovel and dig their way to school.

Yet when Justin Webb, I think it was, mused while presenting the BBC Today programme – "Why is it that schools close, but not supermarkets?" – it was as though he immediately thought, "Silly me, of course schools have to close" and passed on to a new topic. And there is at least one plausible reason. Given the havoc routinely caused by parents driving their children to school in perfect weather, you really don't want to test them in the snow. Safety and sanity dictate that they should stay at home.

But I still think there's something to be explored here. After all, why schools and not supermarkets? Not all children are driven (or take a bus) to school. Many live within easy walking distance. And many of them might have made the effort, had the school been open. Of the schools that did open, many shut early. It wasn't always clear whether this was because there was no quorum of pupils or teachers or because of fears that the weather would close in. But parents, having risked their own journey to work, then had to leave to collect their offspring.

Which highlights one of the big social changes that has taken place in a generation, and one that schools – almost uniquely – appear not to have caught up with. Far more mothers now work, so unscheduled school closures create infinitely more difficulties than they once did. Yes, people should be discouraged from driving in bad weather, and that includes the school run. But how about teachers? Are they not "key" workers when it comes to qualifying for housing on advantageous terms? And should schools not be open to welcome the pupils who can make it, even if the normal timetable has to be replaced by some other activities?

Given all the advances in communications, should not schools be able to download special one-off lessons? And why not designate one local school to be kept open, if at all possible, in emergencies, to receive all teachers and pupils who can reach it, even it is not "their" school, and to "webcast" lessons to pupils who have no choice but to stay at home.

I doubt that everyone who works at a supermarket lives just around the corner, or that every Sainsbury's has a full complement of staff on "snow days". Do teachers, too, sacrifice a day's pay? But if the supermarkets can open their doors after a dusting of the white stuff, I feel schools could try a bit harder to do the same.

Europe House – a perfect home for the Churchill bust

A delicious concentration of ironies in Westminster on Monday evening, but oh so delicately handled. The European Parliament and Commission formally opened their new, shared, London headquarters at No 32 Smith Square – which used to house Conservative Party Central Office. The building from whose window Margaret Thatcher greeted the crowds after her election victory, is now Europe House and flies the EU flag (at least it's blue – and gold). There was a party (still wine, no champagne) and some seriously improving speeches to underline that this was more work than play. Oh yes, and the two leading Eurocrats, Baroness Ashton and José Manuel Barroso, stayed away, citing more weighty commitments (nuclear talks with Iran for madame, the EU-Russia summit for monsieur – you can't really argue with that).

The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, observed that the turn-out was larger than he'd seen at any Euro party in any other EU capital, but was too kind to make a link with the attraction of a free drink in austere times. And William Hague – whose very presence hinted at climate change of a sort in his party – noted his long association with No 32, while adding cheerfully that, after the high-point of that window-wave, it had been downhill for the Tories at that address all the way.

The one awkward moment came when it was announced that the main hall was to be named after a great British European. Oh no, it dawned on me, not Edward Heath... Phew, it turned out to be Winston Churchill. So now there's somewhere to put that bust evicted from the Oval office by Barack Obama.

It'll take a ban, not a nudge, to call time on plastic bags

I wouldn't boast of being the greenest of greens, but even I have noticed a change at the supermarket check-out. Instead of hiding the plastic bags and producing one only if you blushingly ask, they've started to leave them around again, plump them up, and invite you to take more. Apparently, the Coalition has as yet no actual policy for reinforcing the last government's targets for reducing plastic bags. This decidedly un-green generosity is the result.

Now I too have felt pretty stupid, arriving at the check-out at a giant Carrefour or Leclerc, only to find that there are no plastic bags – and I'm not talking about a couple grudgingly given, but none at all. Yet there is no better way to learn that a ban has an effect, and that you can do without them if you try. Mr Cameron & Co have signed up to the fashion for "nudging" people into good behaviour. I fear, with plastic carriers and British supermarkets, it will take a whacking great shove.