Schools under ‘more pressure than ever before’ to stay open when it snows, says headteacher
- Credit: Andy Abbott
The warning comes after 256 schools out of 324 closed in Suffolk today – just under the 279 figure on Wednesday. It was 357 in Essex, a fall from 392.
Headteachers are determined to keep open schools but carry out risk assessments to ensure the safety of pupils and staff.
Daryl Jones, headteacher at Hardwick Primary School in Bury St Edmunds, which opened yesterday but is due to close today, said: “There is more pressure to keep schools open than ever before. Parents want their children to attend school so they can go to work, and the local authority wants us to stay open.
“A few years ago, there was a time when we opened and others shut. Letters were sent congratulating us and others were asked to consider why they shut. The days of closing on a whim has gone. That joke where as soon as there is a snowflake then the school has to close is no longer a given. We have got a duty to educate children and remain open. We cannot have blanket closures.. You don’t want to open then close at midday. Some parents will applaud you for keeping the country running, and others question why you opened. One school might be open and another a mile away might be closed, but they might have a completely different story. It’s very difficult.
“There are four factors: is the school site safe, with heating and water? Is it safe for pupils to be in school? Can the majority of staff get to school? And what is the forecast?”
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Nigel Burgoyne, headteacher at Kesgrave High School, which closed early at 2.45pm yesterday and is due to open at 10am today, said: “I ignore those pressures (to open or close) and I make the right call in terms of safety. It has been a beastly couple of days, with snowdrifts not being cleared.”
Headteachers make the decision to open or close usually before 7am, and their main consideration is health and safety, particularly for pupils.
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Schools are advised to make a decision to close as early as possible, in order to inform parents and carers in good time.
A risk assessment is conducted taking into account factors including:
- The state of pathways, steps and slopes around the school
- Condition of roads and pathways in the local area
- If the school’s heating, lighting and water is working correctly
- Whether catering can be provided
- Availability of public transport and school coaches
- The weather forecast
Schools may also need to close due to other unforeseen circumstances, such as heating failures and structural issues.
Steve Wood, headteacher at Clifford Road Primary School in Ipswich, which opened yesterday and aims to open again today, said: “You are conscious that parents are possibly working and might not get paid if they don’t get into work or might have to take a day’s holiday, but more important than that is the safety of the children. It’s really difficult to balance.”
Graham White, Suffolk representative at the National Education Union, said headteachers nationwide are in an “absolute no win situation”.
He said: “Compared to 10 years ago, it has become even harder for schools to close, because of pressure. Some parents seem to view school as childcare when it is inconvenient to stay at home.
“If they close then local authorities complain, and parents will complain for having to take a day off work. If they don’t close and there was accident involving a pupil, then the school would be potentially sued.”
One headteacher noted on Essex County Council’s school closure website: “Having driven to school and slid across the road, I feel uncomfortable asking children to walk during the rush hour.”
Powers Hall Infant School in Witham stated: “The roads and paths around school are treacherous and with freezing temperatures day and night, there is no sign of improvement.”