Winter closures: School heads warned

HEADTEACHERS across Suffolk will be told to do everything possible to keep their schools open if there is a repeat of last winter’s big freeze.

Hundreds of schools opted to close during the spell of cold weather in December and January, leading to angry complaints from parents who were forced to take days off work.

Education bosses believe many schools closed too easily – on one day in January, nearly 230 were shut – and have stressed that they should be kept open, even if normal lessons are not possible.

Headteachers are to be told not to worry about the difficulties children and staff may have in getting to school in heavy snow – and concentrate more on teaching pupils once they are on school premises.

They will also be told that “common sense” should be used in maintaining safety at their school premises.

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The reaction to last winter’s snow will be debated by the county council’s children, schools, and young people’s scrutiny committee next week.

And the council is to remind heads that it is the responsibility of parents to get their children to school.

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A report to the committee says: “When making their decision about closure or otherwise, headteachers should not take into account the difficulties of each child’s route to school.

“This also applies to staff. The headteacher does not have an extended duty of care to staff to include the journey to and from work. That is a matter for individual staff.”

Officials at the county will be working on new guidelines for heads later this month and they are expected to be sent out later in the autumn.

Graham Newman, county councillor with responsibility for children and young people, said he hoped that lessons had been learned since last winter.

He said: “The first thing to remember is that the responsibility to close or open a school lies with the headteacher, usually in consultation with the governing body.

“When this kind of weather hits, it can vary greatly across the county and schools can be affected differently – the impact of a snowfall on a school in the town where there are no hills nearby will be different to that in a rural area with more difficult access.

“Clearly safety is the major concern that has to be at the top of the agenda, but there may be occasions when while it might not be possible to have lessons as normal, some kind of education provision could be offered.”

Mr Newman said the guidelines would also outline the responsibilities to maintain safety on school premises.

“There’s all this nonsense about if you try to clear the playground and someone slips then you’re responsible. The fact is that so long as you don’t try to make things worse – or do something reckless – then you are not responsible.

“The overall message is that heads should do everything they can to get their schools open whatever the weather.”

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, said: “It is always helpful to have some guidelines on this.

“None of us headteachers ever takes the decision to close a school lightly - we only ever do it as a last resort. The decision to close a school is always made in the interests of the children’s education.”

Graham White, Suffolk secretary for the National Union of Teachers, questioned whether there was anything new in the policy.

“Closing a school has always been the last resort. School closures happen for one of three reasons – either the students can’t get into school, the teachers can’t get into school or the school is so cold that it is not safe to have people inside.”

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