10 things about school snow closures

School in Hampshire 2010

Nearly 5,000 schools have been closed across the UK as snow and icy conditions continue. Here are 10 things about why schools shut and the impact closures have on parents and the community.

Snow often puts schools on a crash course with parents because of school closures.

In some cases the reason is obvious - snow fall is so heavy no-one is going anywhere. But in other cases, particularly in towns and cities, shops don't shut, offices don't close. Nor do hospitals. So why schools? And what is the impact?

1. Head teachers decide whether to shut a school, as they know their schools and the surrounding areas, says the Department for Education (DfE), which is responsible for schools in England. The advice? "Head teachers should use common sense in assessing the risks and keep their schools open whenever it is safe to do so," it says. In exceptional circumstances a local authority can order a blanket closure of all community and voluntary-controlled schools, but not foundation or voluntary-aided schools or academies, which are more autonomous.

School children in Germany A school stays open in Germany, despite the snow

2. The over-riding decision to close a school is made on the basis of child welfare, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). This includes a number of considerations, but focuses on whether children can get to and from school safely, whether the site is safe and whether there are enough staff to supervise youngsters. Health and safety is given a high priority in law, according to Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) so potentially hazardous conditions such as a playground that has turned into an ice-rink or insufficient heating can also be a factor.

3. Staff often travel further to school than children, according to Lightman, so may have more trouble getting in. Schools without enough teachers will sometimes partially open, for example for exam classes such as year 11 or year 13, he says.

4. Situations vary from school to school. On Friday, one local bus company told a school it was unable to provide the school bus home. As it was the main means of transport home for many of the children, the school ended up dismissing classes early, the NAHT says.

5. Parents tend to fall into two categories, according to Lightman. "Some get anxious when it snows and phone the school up because they want their children home straight away. At the other end of the spectrum, parents get frustrated by school closures, and are concerned about childcare arrangements and disruption," he says.

6. People have legal rights to unpaid leave to look after children or other dependents in an emergency, and solicitors advise a school being shut at short notice is likely to be considered an emergency. Employees are entitled to a "reasonable" amount of time off to make alternative arrangements, but what is regarded as "reasonable" depends on individual circumstances, the employment advice and conciliation service Aca notes. TUC policy advisor Paul Sellers says it is "good personnel practice" to have bad weather policies in place but in reality "it's a lottery". "The majority of people who are unable to work due to school closures don't get paid," he says, although the TUC "strongly advises against withholding pay or forcing staff to take holiday". It is possible to get school closure insurance.

7. Small businesses are hit harder by school closures than larger companies, as there are fewer members of staff to fill in for those who can't make it into work, according to the Federation of Small Business. National chairman John Walker says 25% of small firms had to close after the heavy snowfall in 2011. "Many for at least five days, costing them up to £5,000," he says. But on the Federation's Facebook page, small business owners say they are doing their best to carry on. "Working from home as my two boys are playing with Lego as their school is shut! I had the wellies at the ready to walk to school too," says Julia AffinityMag.

8. Other countries don't get it. Jessica Ware, of The Local, an English Language news website in Berlin, says heavy snow falls rarely result in German schools being closed because "they are more equipped to deal with it". Schools have been known to close in the summer, however, "because it is too hot". It's a similar sentiment at the Deutsche School, in Richmond, South London. "I am a bit surprised the schools close in the UK at the mention that there might be snow," says its head, Marie Balkenhol. Pupils at the German-speaking school were sent home earlier on Friday, but Mrs Balkenhol says she sees keeping the school open as a top priority - even if it means hiring substitute teachers to fill in for those who cannot make it in. "German parents expect the school to be open and so far we have not closed the school," she says.

9. The contentious issue of school attendance - which is inspected by Ofsted - isn't part of the equation, according to the DfE, which says head teachers should not be worried about the impact that remaining open might have on their attendance statistics. Before 2010, pupils who did not turn up to school in extreme weather had to be marked down as absent, which wasn't the case if the school shut. But the DfE says the department amended regulations in September 2010, allowing the school to use the attendance code Y - which does not affect attendance statistics - when a pupil cannot get in because of severe weather. However if the head teacher believes that a child could have got to school, then the child should be recorded as code O - an unauthorised absence, it says.

10. Exams will go ahead whenever possible, according to the DfE. It says if a head teacher decides to close a school they will discuss alternative arrangements - such as using other nearby public buildings for the exams - with the relevant awarding organisation, and keep parents informed. Contingency plans for exams that have been disrupted will be discussed with the awarding organisations and "action will be taken will aim to safeguard the interests of candidates whilst also maintaining the integrity of the exams", it says. This may involve using evidence of a candidate's likely achievement, or providing the opportunity to sit any missed exam later in the year.

Has your school been closed? If so, how has it affected you? A selection of your comments will be published below.

As a teacher who got up extra early to clear the thick snow from my car and then drove on very icy roads which hadn't been cleared or gritted to get to school along with many other colleagues I get a little fed up of parents and the press complaining about schools being closed because of the weather. We are not a babysitting service and the decision to close is never taken lightly - if the school site is not safe and there are not enough staff in school to safely care for the number of children we have we have to close. Every teacher I know tries their very best to get to their place of work and unhelpful comments about "making more of an effort" do not help - why are we always painted as the devil? Parents would soon have something to say if their child slipped and had an accident.

Nicola, Rotherham

My children's school was open despite less than a handful of Teachers turning up and only 50 students. Annoying when I think there's my wife a teacher and travelling the same roads as the teachers in my children's school still goes to work. So I have just had a very expensive babysitter today.

Nick Smith, Ruskington Lincolnshire

My daughter's school remained open today and I was delighted. I work full time and childcare is an issue, but I was happy more because I am concerned we are teaching our children that it is acceptable to stop the normal routine during snow. I understand the safety issues, but where are the caretakers? (ours were out clearing paths through the playground this morning!). These decisions have a huge impact by the time kids get into the world of work. I experience it first hand with the office being deserted early by people panicking that they might not get home etc. When snow happens at a weekend, people still go about their daily business, go to the theatre or visit friends etc, as these are fun things to do. I would just like to see more pragmatism. Teachers should work at schools where the risk of them not being able to travel in bad weather is minimal. I accept that extreme acts of nature are different, but snow keeps catching us Brits out and I just don't understand !

Helen, Redbridge, London

Schools that close are short changing our childrens' education. If one child slips at school and breaks an arm or leg, that is no reason to deny the other 999 kids a day's education. They're just as likely to have a similar accident playing in the snow at home.

Mike Read, Meppershall, Bedfordshire

My boys High School opened an hour later in order for the teachers to arrive in. I, on the other hand, still had to get to work, on time, in the cold and snowy weather conditions. So how come when there is no risk to the children and young adults in the school, does the school open late? The travel advice in extreme weather conditions is to 'leave early' and 'allow plenty of time'. So why are teachers the exception? Especially when most parents have to leave earlier than normal in order to arrive on time, leaving their young adults to fend for themselves in the morning for an extra hour (mine are 16 and 14) or losing out on pay - not an option for some parents.

Sara, Milton Keynes

I work for a college and we have similar problems regarding staff and students coming in, especially those in more rural locations. Unfortunately our head will not close unless she absolutely has too, which means that many of us who cannot get in because it is unsafe to do so either have to take holiday or unpaid leave. I do understand that for many a snow day is a scive day but there have been instances where people have tried to come in and had nasty accidents because of the conditions. It is not realistic to expect your staff to come in when there are so few students and coming in could place you or a loved one in danger. It must cost more to open a building and heat and light it than close it for the day?

Boris, Ilminster, Somerset

Unlike the 70s and 80s when I attended school, staff often live 20-30 miles away. This is surely a symptom of our highly mobile society. People being offered jobs and seeking jobs on a regional basis rather that a city/district basis. We have been conditioned by relatively low cost personal car travel, companies centralising and a highly competitive global mindset. Also our families and friends are scattered widely.

Karl Scholten, Crowborough, East Sussex

Given that one function of a school is prepare children for life after school - such as with an education - then closing the school because the playground is a bit slippery doesn't teach the kids much about living in Britain in the winter when, mysteriously, the UK often gets cold and slippery.

Paul Irwin, UK

Our school was the only one in the area which opened today leaving me in rather a quandary. As a childminder I have my son (7) and 3 under 2's safety to consider - there was no way I could push / pull all the children to school and back, it's over a mile each way & we live in the Peak District (the hills would kill me off pulling that many children on sledges). I didn't feel comfortable driving in the conditions, particularly with other peoples children in the car. In the end I called my own snow day & rang the head mistress to explain - she was very understanding, despite the fact she had driven past our front door to get to the school herself.

Lorraine Smitham, Glossop, Derbyshire

I am with you Lorraine - it's a huge responsibility taking care of other people's children as well as your own. I think people shouldn't get so worried about the odd day off school - I really don't think it means children will be slackers when they grow up! And it doesn't mean people who fail to get to work are lazy necessarily either! And why are people so hard on teachers who can't get in? Journeys vary enormously and we should trust people's judgement instead of criticizing. As for children, they can learn just as much by being home and enjoying the experience and the excitement of snow - and catching up with homework etc (They may also enjoy an extra bit of time with their parents since family life is so time-poor these days.) Our school bus didn't make the usual journey today so we had to walk further, which was fun but on the way several people fell over on the ice, one quite heavily. Inevitable. can't help noticing how people like to be hard on others - but everyone's different - some lack confidence driving in poor conditions and that's fine. Let's support each other for heaven's sake - and also let's remember that school isn't 'childcare' at the end of the day.

Angela Lewis, : Salisbury

Whilst not intending to be flippant about really bad weather conditions it appears increasingly common for many schools to close with a minimum snowfall or even the threat of it, disrupting both pupils and parents.As one Head Teacher put it"We can't clear 2-3 ins of snow first thing in the morning" Whats wrong with walking through this depth! Those of us of a certain age would attend school with up to a foot of snow and certainly in towns and cities schools never closed. I suspect the Health and Safety brigade have gone overboard again and insisted on 100% safety. If this is the case we would all be housebound. Also a lot of children don't walk to school now but rely on the school run by car which has its own problems.No wonder our European neighbours laugh when we grind to a halt because of what they term 'a covering of snow' What would happen to schools if we had 3 continuous months with snow?

Mike, Tyne and Wear

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