Don't blame 'chuffing teachers' for the snow

29th January 2010 at 00:00

This term's snowfall has been a pleasant surprise - a late winter bonus for us all.

Each year, because our school is situated at the top of the Llynfi valley, we are more or less guaranteed at least one day a year off because of the white stuff.

But this year, phew, it's been great.

Or has it?

We have now had four days off from school because of the heavy snow. In fact, most schools in our county have had the same, which has meant I couldn't even make the trip to the nearest school to my house to help out there (what a shame).

So there I was, enjoying the unexpected weather we'd had and thinking we only had another four weeks until our next break, when a colleague put the heebie-jeebies into me by mentioning two simple words: "half-term".

The colleague explained that, due to the time missed in schools, we might have to work through the half-term break. This unexpected news blew straight through me like the chilling winter wind rattling around the school playground.

Our contracts all say that, as teachers, we have a legal duty to work 195 days a year, so the fact that schools have been closed could mean teachers will have to work through half-term to fulfil this.

I was gutted.

The teacher sitting next to me quietly added that she would be all right as she had already booked a holiday so could not come in, whatever happened. A cheeky thought leapt into my mind: to get on the internet pronto and book a flight during half-term to visit family in Poland. But I knew I would feel wrong for such a premeditated and sneaky action.

So what is going to happen to our precious holiday? At the time of writing, the idea of having to give it up due to the snow is, thankfully, still just a dark rumour.

But it could happen. A colleague told me that, a few years back, the same situation arose and the teaching unions got involved. Teachers naturally all said, "No way," and that is how I feel. It is not my fault schools have been closing because of the snow.

In the past, schools would only shut if it was extremely heavy and the boiler had packed in. The problem is, of course, due to health and safety issues. Schools have a legal requirement to look after the well-being of their pupils and, of course, this also means they don't want to be sued by a family if a child has an accident on the school grounds because of the weather. Yet our school was open the other day with the playground and other areas peppered with remaining ice and snow from previous days. So how did we cope?

Common sense, of course. Our head and deputy stood outside at the start and end of the day to warn children to be careful walking into school, and then they stayed in class all day so no one got hurt at break times. Some might even see this as an overreaction, but better that than closing the school unnecessarily.

Headteachers have faced an agonising decision when it has snowed, knowing that while shutting the school can delight pupils (and teachers), it can create huge difficulties for working families.

But - even though schools take their responsibility very seriously - the British public is starting to get fed up and bitter.

Friends and parents tell me that teachers are not in favour at the moment. I even overheard an irate man in a shop complaining to the bored-looking assistant about "those chuffing teachers", adding: "I've got to take the day off to look after the children and I don't get paid, but they have the day off and still get paid!"

I wanted to stand up for "those chuffing teachers", but was running late and decided it was not the best time to explain to him that it wasn't our fault.

So what is going to be the solution for future winters when schools will have to shut?

Working through half-term? Surely not! What about stretching the school day to 4.15pm to make up the lost time over a few weeks? Or even starting a little earlier to catch up days missed because of the snow?

Personally, I'd rather see some kind of agreement, written between parents and the school, in preparation for days when the snow falls on our playgrounds, that keeps the school open. In short, facing up and trying to solve the problem that schools are afraid of letting children in, in case they fall over and hurt themselves.

The thing is, hundreds of children who play rugby and netball in school put themselves at risk of getting hurt each week, yet we don't encourage them not to take part.

Walking to school in the snow and ice should be the same. Be careful and take precautions.

If we don't address these problems we will be in the same situation next year and are in serious danger of bringing up a generation of children to believe that when the snow comes down, they should not dare to venture out.

Rob Jefferies, Teacher at Caerau Primary, Bridgend.

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