Snow days: why some schools close and some stay open

As the Beast from the East swept in this week it wreaked havoc across the nation, causing widespread travel disruption and forcing the majority of schools to close.

While most of us would relish waking up to a snow day and being granted some free time to make the most of the wintry weather, the decision to enforce a school closure is one that is not taken lightly.

Making the decision

When an impending bout of bad weather is on its way, immediate thoughts turn to the impact on travel and staying safe in the conditions.

But for schools, there are a significant number of other factors which have to be considered.

According to the Department of Education, schools are required to be in operation for 195 days of the year but are able to close in exceptional circumstances, including:

The death of a member of staff, pupil or another person working at the schoolPower cutAdverse weather conditionsBurst pipes and/or floodingSecurity activity in the areaUse as a polling station

While these factors allow the flexibility to enforce a closure if affected by adverse weather, it is a choice that has to be made individually by the school's headteacher alone, as a spokesperson from Leeds City Council explained:

"It is entirely up to individual head teachers to decide what is best, based on the local conditions around their school and the number of staff that have been able to get into the school in the adverse weather conditions.

"Some may come to us for advice, but they don't have to liaise with us at all.

"Headteachers will generally only close their school as a last resort and they will work closely with their site manager, and sometimes the chair of governors, in order to reach a decision."

Assessing the risks

With the safety of both staff and students to consider, the process of weighing up the risks begins long before the school day is due to begin and involves an arduous procedure of safeguarding checks.

Helen Stott, Head Teacher at Allerton CE Primary School, explained:

"Yesterday was the first time we have closed the school in 11 years and it was incredibly hard to do.

"I don't live near the school, so I liaise with my site supervisor around 5.30am and he will perform a risk assessment of the access to the site in the first instance and other key safety issues, and we'll discuss the state of the local roads.

"I also take into consideration up to date forecasts sent from the local authority to see if the weather is expected to deteriorate."

Along with corresponding with the on-site supervisor, teachers have to take account the much broader picture and will gather information on the local area before making a decision.

"We take advice from the local authority who send regular weather warnings from the Met Office throughout the year, which is incredibly helpful and allows us to make preparations for all kinds of adverse weather conditions," says Stott.

"Local schools work together in families of schools and clusters, and head teachers will often communicate with each other to find out what the local picture is.

"It is a really difficult decision that rests with me as headteacher, but it is one that is done in consultation with the relevant bodies, including the governing body, local authority and academy trust."

Factors at play

Of course, with some schools choosing to remain open during the flurry of bad weather, despite nearby schools announcing closure, it shows how subjective the decision-making process can be.

And while there is a considerable number of factors at play which can influence the choice a headteacher makes, there are some staple checks that are always followed in the event of snow.

"When making the decision, there are a number of factors I always have to consider," Stott explains.

"Is the site safe? Could it be made safe with a slightly later opening time? Do all areas of school have adequate heating? Is there water available? Has the food delivery arrived to provide children with their lunch?

"There's also the teaching staff to consider, as many live significant distances away, meaning we may need to close due to not having adequate staffing ratios, so issues of safeguarding are absolutely key."

Every effort is made by schools to ensure daily routines are not disrupted by bad weather and while a closure causes disruption and inconvenience to parents and carers, the safety of both students and staff is of the highest priority.

"We absolutely aim to open the school as we know the impact that closing has on our families and the local economy," says Stott.

"It is never an easy decision to announce a closure, but we have a responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of students and staff."

So next time you're faced with a snow day, know that it is a decision that was the very last resort.