Snow way they didn't learn a lot

27th February 2009 at 00:00

It's a pleasant, sunny morning. Almost like spring. Yet just three weeks ago, snowfall seemed to have brought the country to its knees.

"Thousands of schools haven't bothered to open," shouted the media. On the radio, older people told us how, as children, they walked 200 miles through 15ft snow drifts carrying school textbooks, sandwiches and a snow shovel ... and still managed to arrive an hour before the whistle blew.

What wimps we are, said the commentators. No moral fibre. No get up and go. If teachers can't be bothered to get to school, what kind of example are they setting for the children? They are all going to grow up work-shy and lack determination.

What they overlooked, of course, was that teachers lived much closer to their schools in those days. People didn't travel very far. And health and safety regulations were unheard of.

In my second year of headship it snowed - although not enough to close the school - and the entire staff turned out at playtime to have a snowball fight with the children.

Imagine that now. If little Charlie got a direct hit in the ear from Sir's snowball, his mother would be digging a pathway through the snow to the local education office. A playground ice slide? What if Maisie slips and sprains her ankle, or topples over and ruins the new designer coat her mother shouldn't have sent her to school in?

Well, this time my school was closed, too. I live on a steep hill, and I couldn't move the car. If I'd walked through the drifts, I'd have arrived just in time to start walking home again.

All but two of my teachers were in the same position. Buses had stopped running and there were no trains. Closing was the only option. Even if a few teachers had been able to keep the school open, they could have done little except park the children in front of a television or play a few games.

But teachers, stupidly, always feel guilty if they are forced to stay at home on a school day. My wife settled down to laminate pictures for a classroom display, and I planned assemblies for the next fortnight. In the event, of course, children all over the country stayed at home, had a wonderful time playing in the snow, and probably learnt twice as much as they would have done at school.

Looking out of the window, I watched a neighbour play with his children. He was still playing with them late in the afternoon. He doesn't have time to do that very often. Next door, the children built a massive snowman in the garden. All sorts of learning took place as they struggled to give his head the right proportions to balance on his body. And on the evening news, there was much footage of families in the parks, simply enjoying themselves with the snow.

Two days later, everything was returning to normal. There was still some snow around, and my teachers seized the opportunities ... did the children know how snow was formed? That no two snowflakes were identical? That snowflakes had six points ... and here's how to create a beautiful symmetrical snowflake from a piece of white paper.

Even the playground became an area of unusual interest. "How does the snow stick so neatly on the branches?" asked Hannah. "Look at the patterns in this slice of ice," said Oliver. And Sam, rolling a massive snowball and staggering out of the gate with it, announced that he intended to keep it in his bedroom.

I bet his mother was thrilled.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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