Education & Family

Gove: 'Schools should be open' despite snow

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Media captionHead teacher Liam Nolan: "The school is open - the kids are here to learn"

"Everything can and should be done" to keep schools open during the wintry weather, Education Secretary Michael Gove said - as snow closed more than 5,000 schools across the UK on Monday.

But he said schools would not be penalised if students could not attend.

About one in six schools, and tens of thousands of pupils, are thought to have been affected by severe weather.

However, pupils have been taking A-level and GCSE exams on Monday despite the difficult conditions.

Head teachers make the final decision on whether to close schools - and schools and councils have been using websites and social networking to keep parents alerted.

Some parents complained about late decisions on closures and poor communication from some schools.

Addressing the House of Commons, Mr Gove told MPs: "More than 5,000 schools have closed across the country today as a result of adverse weather conditions.

"Thanks to changes that this government has made, no school which ensures that it is open will be penalised if individual students cannot make it to school on that day."

He went on: "I hope as a result that more and more schools will recognise that while the decision on whether or not to remain open or closed is a matter for the headteacher, everything can and should be done in order to ensure that all children get access to a good education."

Justine Roberts, of the parenting website Mumsnet, said school closures could be difficult for parents, "but obviously it's more important to them that their children are safe".

'Communicate more'

"The one thing schools could do better in some cases is to communicate more. The most stressful thing is having to make desperate last-minute childcare plans."

"No head teacher takes the decision to close their school lightly," said Brian Lightman, head of the Association of School and College Leaders.

"Whilst heads will do everything they can to keep the school open, the key consideration has to be their ability to ensure the safety of students. If they do not think they can provide a site that is safe for the majority of students, they will close."

Mr Lightman said it was a decision that head teachers "dread", because they can be criticised for closing and can be accused of negligence if they open and there is an accident.

Sion Humphreys, policy adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers, said that head teachers had a duty of care to pupils.

"They have to consider - is this a safe environment? Is the playground frozen, are there enough teachers?

"Most teachers don't live in the community near the school so they have further to travel - so they sometimes find it harder to get in than their pupils."

Keeping a school open depends on transport and access - and David Simmonds of the Local Government Association said councils had made this a priority.

"Routes to large schools are gritting priorities for local authorities as they know how important keeping them open is both in terms of continuity of teaching for pupils and avoiding costly and disruptive childcare for parents," he said.

But heads had to consider the "local circumstances", said Mr Simmonds, such as "the number of teachers who can make it into work safely, dangerous road conditions, or problems with vital supplies such as food, heating or water".

He also emphasised the need for early information for families.

"A key priority in supporting mums and dads is for schools to ensure they make any decision as soon as possible so families can make arrangements accordingly," said Mr Simmonds.

Exam worries

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Media captionRob Anthony explains why schools close during snowy weather

A statement from the Welsh government said the decision on whether to close a school because of bad weather rested with the head teacher and that lost sessions should only be made up if it was "reasonably practicable to do so".

There have been pupils taking A-level and GCSE papers on Monday - including papers in A-level psychology, geography and biology and GCSEs in geography and ICT.

The "vast majority" of these exams have gone ahead as planned, says the Ofqual qualifications regulator.

Any prolonged snow closures could cause further problems with more pupils taking exams this week.

A statement from the Joint Council for Qualifications said that rescheduling these exams was "not an option", because the "integrity of the question papers could be compromised".

If a school is closed and there are no alternative arrangements possible and the exam cannot be retaken in the summer, the exam authorities say that pupils can apply for "special consideration", which could mean that exam boards take into account factors such as predicted grades.

Closing a school also has a knock-on effect for local businesses, says John Walker, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses.

"Many small firms will find that staff are unable to make it to work due to snow-bound roads and school closures which mean that parents have to stay at home to look after their children."

Staffing problems could mean that businesses could not open - and this could be expensive for small firms, said Mr Walker.

Parents who have had to stay at home to look after children have also spoken of their own challenging conditions.

Neil Farrington, a senior lecturer at Sunderland University, described weather conditions near his home at Castleside, County Durham, as "horrendous".

"All the schools round here are closed so I have a house full of kids and dogs and none of them want to go out."

Mr Farrington said the snow was now too deep for sledging: "We're all stuck in the house, climbing the walls."

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