Schools put on ice as big freeze hits
The weather has caused chaos in Scottish schools for a second week, prompting demands for changes in how local authorities deal with extreme conditions.
A sizeable minority of pupils did not make it to school for the best part of a fortnight. Early this week, after more heavy snowfall on Monday, up to 10 authorities were simultaneously enforcing blanket closures.
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said local authorities were "between a rock and a hard place", having to balance safety and educational priorities, but she saw plenty of room for improvement.
"Groupcall and similar systems for alerting parents seem not to have been used effectively by all authorities and the criteria used for decisions to close are not entirely clear," she said. "Local radio is not a sufficiently robust system in our view.
"Parents are confused and concerned: it's virtually impossible to predict whether schools will be open or closed or, even worse, when schools will close early."
Falkirk education director Julia Swan, in the job since 2004, had never previously closed all schools at once. But Falkirk had some of the heaviest snowfall and put in place blanket closures for the majority of the past two weeks.
Decisions were usually left to individual schools, but these had been "extreme" circumstances, during which the emergency services were stretched and gritters could not clear all roads, largely because of abandoned cars, she said.
Falkirk Council relied on its website, text messages and Central FM to provide updates. Council websites seized up across the country - IT experts say they are often not robust enough to withstand a surge of users. Mrs Swan added that mobile networks had proved unreliable and even the local radio station went off air for 20 minutes.
She plans to review methods of communication and said pupil access to Glow, the Scottish schools' intranet, would have offset disruption to preliminary exams for senior pupils. She will bring that forward earlier than originally planned in the new year.
In North Lanarkshire, up to 15cm of snow fell on Monday after many children had arrived at school, and a blanket closure was still in force on Wednesday. Education director Christine Pollock was among around 20 education staff who stayed overnight in council offices, dealing with a final phone call at around 2am, from a nursery where a child had just been collected.
In Fife, many schools remained open this week despite heavy snow in the region, although there was a blanket closure early last week.
Blanket closures had the advantage of "clear, unambiguous communication to all staff and parents" and removed travel risks, said head of education (north) Bryan Kirkaldy. Fife Council has attempted to improve communication with families. Detailed guidelines for headteachers advise that 12 separate channels could be used, including Twitter and Facebook.
In some areas where all local authority schools were closed, nearby independent nurseries and schools remained open. John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said only those in Edinburgh had closed in any number.
This week's blanket closures came days after Education Secretary Michael Russell told all 32 authorities to take such action only in exceptional circumstances. Headteachers were best placed to decide whether to close a school, he said.
Mr Russell's intervention "made sense", according to Eileen Prior, particularly in larger authorities. But it drew an angry response from Pat Watters, president of local authorities body Cosla, who told Mr Russell to keep out of local decision-making.
A spokesman for the Scottish Qualifications Authority said it would monitor the situation. But he said prelims were organised locally and the closures should not cause significant problems for next year's exams.