Here we are again at that time of year when school leaders set their alarms several times overnight as they keep an eye on weather conditions to assist them in making key decisions regarding their schools.
We all want to keep schools open as far as is practically possible but there are times when the balance tips in favour of other options, such as a late start, complete closure, or partial closure (with the added dimension of which staff are in or out).
In some ways the worst scenario of all is when the decision is taken to open and then, as the weather worsens or bus companies insist on taking students earlier or not picking up at all, you then have to close.
One thing is for sure, it is a much easier decision to take when it’s not you making it! The responsibility behind the call is immense and the potential consequences could be tragic.
Take yesterday as an example – the forecast was for snow at some point and very cold conditions during the day, with the Met Office forecast showing a band of snow passing through over three hours but then clear conditions.
Senior staff were on our very large site several hours early to check conditions on the ground, as we always do at this time of year. We get in at any point around 6am, meet with the site management team and assess the situation before taking appropriate action. Yesterday, we opened as usual having re-gritted the outside and checked the inside.
All went well until the first flurries at about 10am. Then the phone calls started. “Is the school closing?” And: “Why aren’t you closing when schools x, y and z are?”
This is despite the fact that we have systems in place for texting parents, updating the website and so forth so we usually keep parents quite up-to-speed with any changes.
I took the decision to remain open, much to the annoyance of one parent who demanded assurances that I would get their child home on time. And if I didn’t, they “would be taking it further”.
As it happened, the Met Office was spot on and by 2pm we had sunshine, cleared paths and, of our community of 2,500 staff and students, many people reported better journeys home than usual!
This isn’t always the case and despite our best intentions we can make what turns out to be a duff call – but we still have to make it.
A couple of years ago after a particularly vitriolic email from a parent regarding closure, I rang the person during the evening and gave them the opportunity to decide! Suffice to say they declined.
The safety of our students and staff is paramount in this, and not just on the journey to and from school, but on the school site too.
Schools stay open, receiving plaudits from the community for their “no-nonsense” approach until a child falls having strayed out of bounds from the gritted path and then the head finds themselves on the evening news.
Others close and the heads are also castigated for their “soft – wouldn’t have happened in my day” decision!
The reality is that we plan in advance, have good communication systems, gather the best intelligence we can, and then make the call.
With the technology we have we can be physically closed yet virtually open – the Australian bush schools operated in this way for years.
However, we are dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t on this one – so let’s hope for sunny days ahead!
Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.