Monday, 11 January 2010

School Closures - Some Thoughts

Across the country schools have been closed due to the bad weather and a number of people have expressed their annoyance at the disruption to their lives as a result. This has highlighted a couple of interesting issues regarding schools today.

I heard someone complaining this morning that their child's school was closed while the supermarket on the same road was open and doing a roaring trade. This is actually due to the fear on the part of the school and education authority of being sued by parents if their child slips, falls and hurts themself. For the same reason, Liverpool's home match on the weekend was postponed, even though the club shop remained open. Essentially, if an organisation is seen as 'encouraging' people to attend, then they are deemed responsible for any subsequent ice-related accidents. Shops, on the other hand, are not seen as 'encouraging' visitors in the same way, and would not be held responsible for any mishaps occuring to the shoppers on their way to and from the store. If parents were not so quick to sue schools for accidents that clearly cannot be helped, then I'm sure more schools would attempt to remain open in snowy conditions.

Another reason why so many schools remain closed is that so many staff live beyond easy walking distance of their school. When I was a lad, growing up in Carmarthen in the Sixties and Seventies, practically all of my teachers lived in the town and could easily have walked to work if they had so chosen. The situation is very different now in most parts of the country. There is an inverse correlation between the 'toughness' of a school and the number of teachers who opt to reside in that school's catchment area. Here in East London, the majority of our teachers are beyond walking distance of their school and so if roads are blocked or treacherous, or if public transport is affected, they have a big problem in getting to work. Unlike offices and other businesses, schools cannot work on a skeleton staff, nor can they have a situation where staff come in in dribs and drabs throughout the morning. If a headteacher cannot be sure that he will have sufficient staff on site from the first thing in the morning, then he cannot open the school.

This also highlights another issue regarding our schools - the extent to which they are often more child-care institutions than places of learning. What irritates parents so much when schools are closed is not that their children will miss their lessons, but that they have to arrange alternative child care when both parents are in full time work. Some children are now in school for so long that they barely see their real parents during the school week. I know of small children who are dropped off well before eight in the morning for 'breakfast club' and then stay behind at the end of the day for school 'clubs' and other extra-curricular activities. In total, the little dears can be on the school site for anything up to 10 hours a day. It's not surprising I used to be called 'Dad' by mistake from time to time (unless they know something I don't!). In any case, the school day is far too long for our youngest children. In my teaching career I taught every year group from nursery through to Sixth Form and as far as the youngest children are concerned, they did all their learning in the morning. It was quite normal for many of them to nod off after lunch. I think I might have joined in with them a couple of times! But they have to be kept in school until late in the afternoon, as both parents are working and private child care is so expensive.

So, my dear friends, don't blame our schools when they close during bad weather. They have very little alternative!

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