Winter is snow joke in Finland - but they just plough on through

17th December 2010 at 00:00
While schools shut up shop in Scotland, it is business as usual in Nordic countries as the temperature drops

As thousands of Scottish pupils kicked their heels at home for days on end, children in other northern European countries were serenely making their way to school in sub-zero temperatures.

This month has raised questions about why the recent bad weather in Scotland has cost so much - countless hours of education, a ministerial job (see below), and any lingering hope that lessons were learned from last winter's chaos - when other nations prove it does not have to be that way.

A spokesman for the Finnish Government told The TESS that weather-related school closures were "very rare, if not even non-existent" in his country. Snow-ploughs, winter tyres, well-insulated buildings and adequate infrastructure made it possible to reach school even in extreme conditions, he explained.

Finnish schools often have their own "limits of coldness" for being outdoors, usually between -15 and -20C. But this only requires pupils to stay indoors for breaktimes and PE; they are still expected to come to school.

Recent blanket closures of schools by Scottish local authorities have caused controversy, notably a spat between Education Secretary Michael Russell and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Mr Russell, who insisted headteachers were best-placed to judge whether to close a school, would approve of the Finnish approach: in the unlikely event of weather-related school closures, the decisions would have been made by heads.

People in Scottish education who have visited Norway also report a scenario far removed from that at home, and one told The TESS that two words summed up the difference: winter tyres.

The special tyres, manufactured largely for export in Scotland, are commonplace in Norway and ensure cars travel fairly easily along snow- covered roads, albeit drivers seldom exceed 40 miles an hour.

Schools rarely close because of the weather, although there was an exception in recent weeks when blizzards in Tromso, a city inside the Arctic Circle, forced many to do so.

Pupils are allowed out at breaktimes to enjoy the snow in playgrounds that have not been cleared, amid temperatures that even in the southerly capital, Oslo, can go months without getting above zero. Many children bicycle through the snow to school, and are given plenty of changing space for bulky outer clothes.

Mona Rohne, Norwegian consul in Edinburgh, said that "life and communities work as normal" in difficult weather, although children at kindergartens and schools tended to be kept indoors at playtimes in temperatures colder than -10C.

In Scotland, people who helped schools stay open in the snow could win a national award. Michael Russell has announced that the annual Scottish Education Awards will be open to "snow heroes", having heard of staff, parents, pupils and others who cleared paths and set up ad hoc overnight accommodation in schools.

"I want to make sure that this commitment is formally recognised on a national basis," he said, in encouraging nominations for the existing "educational supporter" category.

Meanwhile, as The TESS went to press, Scotland was bracing itself for another wintry blast.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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