As a child I loved snow, but as a Headteacher I could do without it. The hard winter I predicted in an October blog has arrived and on Monday 5000 schools including about 800 in East Anglia were unable to open because of snow.
Headteachers know that bad weather creates a Catch 22 ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t scenario’. Schools closing in the event of snowfall can be criticised for creating childcare crises as parents have to take time off work at short notice to supervise their offspring. A January school closure will also impact on public exams with students missing out on modular sittings, and most importantly of all school closures represent lost learning time.
Keep schools open, however, and Heads face different problems. If staff fail to make it to work, teacher – pupil ratios may fall below legal minimums. Pupils excited by snowy playgrounds can injure themselves running on ice, whilst there is always the risk that bad weather could strand students on the journey to or from school. Headteachers with responsibility for the welfare of children have to be risk averse: the downside risks of staying open are often greater than the downside risks of closing.
Nevertheless snow can teach us all something about resilience. Attitudes to bad weather, like attitudes to many things are shaped in early childhood. I grew up on a farm in rural Worcestershire when closing for snow was not an option. Animals needed feeding whether there were 5 or 25cm of snow. The council didn’t clear farm roads – we did. My parents took the view that the school holidays were long enough already, and in term time we went to school come what may. I still recall wading through the snow in shorts to push the stranded school bus over the Abberly Hills.
Given my background, it is not surprising that I am from the “open if at all possible” school of headship. I want to do all I reasonably can to protect pupil learning time and spare working parents childcare crises. However schools can only open if it is safe to do so, and this requires a significant investment in snow clearing machinery, stockpiles of salt and teams of staff willing to work through the early hours to clear sites for morning school. It also helps if you are a city school on a flat site next to a main road. The Perse is fortunate to be in such a position, and I am very grateful to the caretaking and ground staff who work tirelessly to keep us open.
The costs of closing a school are considerable whether measured in lost learning time or the impact on the local economy as parents leave work to look after children. As Head of an independent school I am conscious that parents have paid good money to send their children to school, and that I have a resulting obligation to be open wherever possible. I also hope that in remaining open, I am helping to shape the attitudes of the next generation and create a more robust approach to modest snowfalls. Schools need to set a good example by keeping going whenever it is safe to do so.
Ultimately it must be for parents to decide whether in the event of snow their children should attend school or not. Only parents can know whether local conditions around their home make a journey safe. However, The Perse does everything it reasonably can to remain open when it is safe to do so, so that parents have the choice to make. My childhood habits continue, and the sight of snowflakes falling from the sky has me reaching for the nearest shovel….