Sunday, January 10, 2010

Is education 'blinded’ by snow?

Picture the scene; on Friday I walked past a cluster of three schools, all within a few hundred yards of each other. The roads were open and traffic flowing, every shop, pub and restaurant in the area was open. The buses were running and the trains operating. Hundreds their students were throwing snowballs and sledging in the snow on their extensive fields. Something odd, however; the schools were all shut, and as most parents now know, there wasn’t a snowball chance in hell of them being open. Why?

At the first drop of snow Education is the first to bring down the shutters on their students and their parents. Fair enough in those cases where it is physically impossible for teachers and students to get in, but in the majority of cases, this is is simply not true. What is maddening is the excuses trotted out by headteachers and teachers alike.

Blame the parents!

Hard to believe, but almost every teacher I’ve met will recite the myth and mantra of the ‘litigious parent’. Parents will sue at the drop of a glove, they claim, if their children slip in the snow and hurt themselves. No they won’t. There have been no cases of parents suing a school because of snow and ice. This anti-parent attitude is deeply embedded in the educational establishment. My school grounds are full of students playing about in the so-called ‘treacherous’ conditions. Keeping them out of school surely increase the general risk to children of accidents due to snow and ice. The word ‘treacherous’ is a dead giveaway. It’s not snowing in the classrooms.

Blame the Local Authorities

They have a point here, as the ‘risk analysis’ documents push schools into odd action. However, in the end, it’s the Headteacher and senior staff that make the decision. This leads to subjective judgements fuelled by Headteachers who instinctively side with their staff. They don’t take into account the consequences of their actions for the rest of us. You have the fascinating phenomena in my town of the private schools staying open and the state schools closing down. Can I suggest that this is because the private schools are run for the benefit of their students and parents, not the teaching staff?

If parents can, teachers can

In my town almost every business is open and working parents have made it to work. The roads past my local schools are open – I’ve walked and driven along them – and transport to and from the town is adequate. I’ve made it across town with ease and been to London on back on time. Sure, a few teachers and pupils may not have been able to get to school, but most students live in the catchment area and would have had no problem at all. If staff in other businesses can get to work, so can teachers.

1 teacher 60 parents

Parents, especially single parents, but also other working couples, have a tough time here, having to arrange childcare, often at the last minute, so that they can get to work, while the teachers stay at home. This is costly. For every teacher who’s at home, there may be up to 60 parents at work, many who have find alternative arrangements for their children.

No pay for the poor

Another unintended consequence is the loss of pay, not for the teachers, but for auxiliary staff, who often don’t get paid if they don’t get to work. As usual it’s the poor who suffer here, cleaners and canteen staff. Couldn’t we just pay for them to clear some paths in the snow and get everyone back on track.

Unfair exams

70,000 students have GCSE and A-level exams this week and most have been deprived of adequate support by schools that have been quick of the mark in closing down. The exam boards have been guilty of putting their business interests before that of their pupils. The disruption caused by the snow has put this crop of students at a disadvantage. It is not a fair test because the lead-up conditions are different, depending on where you live or whether you’re in a private of state school.

Many pay for few

Businesses accept that a few people may not be able to get in but don’t close down the whole establishment on the basis of the few. In schools, if just a few can’t make the whole thing closes down.

As parents we’re constantly reminded that absence from school has a deleterious effect on the educational attainment of our children, except when it’s caused by snow, apparently. This fact is conveniently ignored when it comes to making the effort to get schools open in bad weather. Why don’t we do the right thing here and allow teachers holidays when it snows and get them to work extra days when the weather improves?


johnpopham said...

Interesting stuff, Donald. You might be interested in my views on this at

Cyberdoyle said...

I was informed this week that the decision to close one of our local schools was greatly influenced by HSE worries about children slipping, but the main reason (because quite a few couldn't get in until side roads were cleared) was because any absenteeism would go down on the ofsted reports and be a black mark for the school.
This blows plain ordinary common sense out of the window, and although I agree totally with your blog post I can understand the concerns of the school. People have short memories of snowy winters when they are reading ofcom reports or dealing with some of the moronic parents who blame school if their little darling slips on a wet corridor where snow has melted off shoes, or on school paths and steps. You may be one of the sensible parents, as I hope I am, but the litigation society is rampant in many schools. I think schools should just insure against it and stay open. We always got to school and had lots of fun at playtimes with snowmen and slides.
Its all banned now.
sad times because of HSE.
bring back some sanity someone?

Donald Clark said...

MY point is that Headteachers USE Health and Safety as an excuse, when in reality there is on basis to close the school.

I disagree with the'moronic parents' point. This seems to be wishful thinking by teachers. By 'Ofcom' I think you mean 'Ofsted'.

The 'absenteeism issue is another teachers' red herring. There is no way that absenteeism would be held against a school if a student or teacher couldn't physically get to school - this would be an authorised absence.

Anonymous said...

It is not always the case that opening the school has the support of the parents.

My school opened twice this week and we had 30% and 40% attendance respectively. This is very frustrating for a school who are trying to keep open and provide normality for students.

It is also worth noting that many of my friends who work in industry were not in the office on those days and were working from home (including my boyfriend). This allows those industries to say that their staff are still working and further the view that schools are the only places that close.

Sorry for the anonymity but I feel it is necessary due to the discussion of school attendance information.

Cyberdoyle said...

Well spotted! I did mean ofsted. I have ofcom on the brain at present. soz.
I don't know about head teachers using HSE as an excuse, depends how often anyone has sued you. Once sued never forgotten trust me on that one.
All I know is what I said, the teachers and governors I spoke to do feel that some things are not worth the risk. And it isn't the snow they fear. And these particular teachers are brilliant, and its a brilliant school, so I think their fears are real and they aren't just skiving. As a chair of school in 80/90s I saw changes. I also witnessed 'some' moronic parents. Not many, but one is enough. Just one can cost hours of time to sort instead of getting on with the job in hand, so its best to avoid issues.
Not sure about authorised absence, isn't even that a black mark in ofsted speak? Luckily I retired from the job before they took over, but the teachers I spoke to this week still think any absence is bad for the reputation of the school, so shut is better. I will tell them to check with ofcom, they may not know as much about it as you seem to do.
Thanks for the reply! knowledge is power, and sharing info is what the web is all about. Tis far better to clarify than to remain ignorant. I have learnt a lot from this one blog alone...

Donald Clark said...

Anonymous - sure some people in business worked from home, especially as their jobs may allow them to work online, but teachers need to work with students. I wonder how many of these teachers took the opportunity to some professional development or preparatory work?

If only one or two schools stay open you'll get this groupthink reaction.

Donald Clark said...

Cyberdoyle - I was a governor for a number of years and, like the teaching staff, they've worked themselves up into a frenzy of fear over largely imaginary problems. The health and safety issues are mythical are exist only in the minds of the educational professionals. Students still had to go to the doctors, dentists etc. and they didn't close. I don't doubt that they convince themselves of the threats, but they don't really calculate the risks and merely play lip service to the well-worn false beliefs about litigation.

I spoke to my sister, who works in A&E as a nurse - she says her waiting rooms are full of kids who would not have been there had they been in the safe environment of a classroom in school.

Ofsted is also seen as some sort of ogre but getting an acceptable rating isn't that hard - after all there's only 4 ratings and the first three are Outstanding, Good and Satisfactory. For teachers to use a potential rating on a piece of paper as an issue in their judgement is also disturbing. It's not what they're paid to do.

Anonymous said...

I certainly think that schools need to put better provision in place for homeworking and eLearning in cases like this.

It seems that there are more occasions like snow/swine flu/burst pipes etc that prevent school from opening.

I know that not all students have access to the Internet but more use could be made of VLEs.

Reggie Peach said...

One school I noticed rounded up parents and kids with shovels to clear the playgrounds and entrances.
And why not?
We should all by now have accepted that the authorities are pretty useless and if you want a job done it's better to do it yourself.
Yes we do pay our taxes to these wasters but we only do so to avoid prison.
The snowstorms showed us all what was lacking and that, as far as I'm concerned, is communal effort.
Apathy is a bitch - and then you die

Donald Clark said...

An incensed parent from St Paul's College, a comprehensive at Burgess Hill, has commandeered a tractor to clear all roads to the school. It's open tomorrow! Other schools have had parents out clearing the way.

It strikes me that schools think "Yes...but...." rather than "Yes....and..." The lack of leadership leads to a lack of initiative.

Donald Clark said...

Even Ed Balls thinks the whole thing has got out of hand:

He called on head teachers to make a "balanced decision" and not to "overstate the risks of playground slips or reduced supervision".

Political speak for, 'We've had enough of this nonsense!"

Kim Thomas said...

Donald, you say "There is no way that absenteeism would be held against a school if a student or teacher couldn't physically get to school - this would be an authorised absence." Can you be sure about that? It's certainly not what I heard on the radio last week. One head I know has told me that even a chicken pox epidemic can affect a school's "unauthorised absence" figures.

Secondly, a lot of teachers these days choose to live a long way from the school they work in. When the police are saying "Don't travel unless absolutely necessary" it seems insane to demand that teachers make their way to work. There is an unfortunate knock-on, of course; if a teacher has children at a school that is closed, then it's even harder for that teacher to get into school, and so on.

About the private schools - that's not universal. I have a friend with a child at a private school that simply closed all last week. And they already have longer holidays than state schools!

And again, about businesses - someone at Microsoft told me that Microsoft HQ in Reading was closed last week, though haven't confirmed this anywhere else.

That's not to say that I don't take your general point, which is that schools should open if they could. If half the teachers can get in, and half the pupils, perhaps it's worth doing. I really don't know the truth about the health and safety issue and whether parents sue. It does seem to me that local authorities tend to be over-cautious, and schools rely a lot on the advice they get from their LA.

Donald Clark said...

If children are off through a legitimate disease, then this is not unauthorised absence. This is yet another 'they're out to get us' myth put around by teachers.

"Don't travel unless absolutely necessary" - it is necessary for teachers to travel to work. This is no different from other workers who are at work today. As I say, by not being at work the knock on effect for other parents is enormous.

There are, of course, exceptions but the private schools across the country have made a far greater effort to stay open, and most have succeeded. This is certainly the case in Brighton, my home town.

Businesses have also been kept open as they do not adopt a 'close or open' policy. They accept the fact that a few may not make it but carry on regardless. (It wouldn't surprise me if Microsoft closed, as they're on a campus in the middle of nowhere.

On the whole, the sorry business continues today, as most schools in my town are closed, yet again.

Unknown said...

Hi, Donald.I think many senior teachers genuinely thought that staying open and having a low attendance would affect their atendance figure for the year and this might trigger interest from OFSTED. This was said on the radio and I do believe that that OFSTED no longer distinguish between authorised and unauthorised absence the way they used to.

HOWEWVER, they needn't have worried. Here is ios from the horse's mouth:

Our data do not enable us to alter the formula in any way that would isolate the absences due to inclement weather, or even for the days concerned - we only have total numbers of absences for each term and cannot isolate particular days (or even weeks). This does mean that the absence percentage for a school that stays open may be higher than if it had closed if significant numbers of pupils are unable to attend. However, our main focus is on persistent absence (which we define as missing 20% or more of possible sessions). It is unlikely that persistent absence would be significantly affected by short periods of adverse weather. Moreover when looking at attendance, Ofsted inspectors look at trends over time. When looking at registers, if there appear to be specific days or periods of time when there is high absence inspectors will discuss with the school the reasons for it. Similarly the National Strategies will take account of such circumstances in their support and challenge work on persistent absence with LAs and schools.

This came from Shmuel Kalen the Team Leader in the School Attendance Team.

Unknown said...

Just one more thing, though, Donald. It might have been more help if this informaiton had been passed around BEFORE the bad weather!!

Unknown said...

Me again, you cna find the same info here 9scroll down):

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Francis - very useful. As you say, it's a shame that the myth-busting doesn't take place across the whole system prior to the weather turning.

Rob said...

Donald- ""Don't travel unless absolutely necessary" - it is necessary for teachers to travel to work." I think that's a bit disingenuous. You know that by "essential" the police mean if you are taking someone to hospital, for instance. Why would anyone literally put their life at risk to get to their job? On the first serious snow day where I live, all buses were cancelled, and most trains. Even A roads had not been gritted. Pavements were treacherous - and still are: I've travelled to work today, and have been obliged to park on a sheet of ice. It would have been impossible for me to get to work.
The compensation culture *does* seem to be in full flow, according to this report , which features one pupil awarded over £10,000 for a fall on school premises.
I absolutely agree that schools close too easily, but I also know that there's been a lack of investment in equipment for years now, so that when we do get extreme weather, we are simply not prepared - hence your irate parent and his tractor.
I've just returned from a snowbound Germany, where you might think they would be better prepared - but in the north, where conditions were particularly bad, with motorways and railways blocked, North Sea dykes breached etc., they closed all the schools- sensibly, in my view.
I can remember when I was a teacher being obliged to report to my nearest local authority school in the event of snow preventing me getting to my place of work. It happened once. I walked for an hour through the snow, to find my nearest school was, of course, closed.

Donald Clark said...

Rob - the 'report was from the Daily Mail, so let's be wary, and in fact reports on three cases, two from teachers (one got £7,800, the other £17,800! The one pupil case that was mentioned was not due to snow/ice.

I don't doubt Rob, that some teachers can't get to work, but many simply don't go to work because their school is closed. That's why all the businesses in the area are open.

Rob said...

Yes, take the point about the Mail- not my preferred read, as you will guess, but I saw it linked from Yahoo. You said that "Hard to believe, but almost every teacher I’ve met will recite the myth and mantra of the ‘litigious parent’. Parents will sue at the drop of a glove, they claim, if their children slip in the snow and hurt themselves. No they won’t." And, no, the Mail report wasn't about snow, but my point was that schools do seem to have to deal with litigation about trivial events such as slipping. Parents are doubtless lured by websites such as this to seek a payout for every incident.This item in The Times descibes that culture, and also features an example of a parent sueing over a snowy playground. Don't get me wrong - I agree that schools are too quick to close, and the knock-on effect is extensive, but I do think they are probably damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

Rob said...

Don't know what happened to the Times link. Here's another:

This was the original one: