Thwarted by the white stuff

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Despite the efforts of determined staff, hundreds of schools across the country are forced to close amid freezing conditions

The christmas holidays continued for tens of thousands of pupils this week as severe weather halted teaching across Wales.

Hundreds of schools decided to close due to unsafe and icy conditions, burst pipes and boiler failures, and poor access to transport routes.

Even many that at first decided against the unplanned extension of the Christmas break and struggled to open eventually had to concede defeat to heavy snowfall that affected both urban and rural areas.

Sub-zero temperatures first hit schools across south and west Wales. By Wednesday, more than 430 schools were closed across north Wales, with Wrexham council alone closing 184.

In England, Dora Plant, headteacher of Ashbrow Infant School in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, took over two hours to make her three-mile commute.

"I left at 6.40am and didn't get in until 9.20am," she said. "There was a car accident at the end of my street and when I got to the main road it was crawling pace. I could have walked faster."

After battling in, Mrs Plant decided to close the school on Tuesday until the weather had passed.

"We took the decision to close on health and safety grounds," she said. "The snow came down heavily, and we made the decision because we were told roads were impassable."

There were similar problems at the opposite end of the country for Ian Dickerson, head of Horwood and Newton Tracey Community Primary School, in Barnstaple, Devon. Mr Dickerson's journey was disrupted three times by police who had closed impassable roads.

"The main roads on the way to school are all closed, as are roads from the opposite direction," he said. "Rural north Devon is not the easiest place to drive around because of the hills. I only stayed in school briefly, because the bad weather was really setting in."

This year's snowfall follows similarly inclement weather in February last year, which led to the closure of an estimated 8,000 schools. At that time heads faced criticism for shutting schools too quickly, which some said gave children the wrong message about battling through in adverse conditions.

The protests were more muted this time round, although John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, conceded that it was impossible to keep all parents happy all the time.

"There is a presumption to keep schools open, but health and safety of the children in schools is a head's prime responsibility," he said. "Can you get enough staff in to manage pupils' safety?"

Snow must go on

Schools that remain open to small numbers of pupils during extreme weather should not be punished for poor attendance, according to a union leader.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, made the comments after severe weather disrupted thousands of schools.

"Schools that stay open, but whose attendances are hit, should not be penalised when the weather is extremely bad," he said.

"These days of school closure should not count in final government attendance statistics."

In schools battling to improve attendance this penalty could unravel positive progress the school has made. Last year, Childeric Primary School in Lewisham, south-east London, had only 100 pupils out of 300 turn up on a day when teachers struggled in despite the weather.

Guidance states that pupil absence should not be recorded when local authority-run school transport is affected by the weather.

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