Saturday, January 09, 2010

In defence of the Headteacher

The decision to close schools isn’t an easy one, and Headteachers seem to take the rap no matter what they do. If you close, the commeteriate launch at you on BBC News24, and if you don’t then parents will queue up to attack you if things go wrong for their children. Snow Days are a no-win for any head. But this year, with prolonged bad weather, it seems that much of society is taking it out on schools, and if doing this will make the weather better!

Now Tory blogger Iain Dale has waded in and asked why if some schools can open, others cannot. It’s dangerous to disagree with Iain, but I’m afraid he is totally wrong about this.

In direct answer to his question, some schools open and some close because they are all different depending on size, location of pupils, location of teaching staff, structure of the site and support of grounds staff. But I don’t think Iain understands the ways that schools work and blaming the legal side of things is only half the problem.

Schools are not businesses – you cannot operate on a skeleton staff and everything begins and ends with the bell, not when the boss chooses it.

Some teachers will find it harder to get into school. I work 15 minutes walk away from my school, but my colleagues come in from Diss, Thetford, Lowestoft and – sometimes worse in terms of travel – small Norfolk villages. If you are late, who registers your class? Or teaches period one until you arrive? Let’s double up classes I hear you cry! Great plan – so how many rooms can cope with 60+ kids at a time? In my school we have around 6 rooms that could cope with those numbers. If you cannot make it in at all you have 5 periods of cover to arrange. Every class needs a teacher in front of it and I bet you nobody could find a supply teacher for love nor money in the last week. So the moment 6 staff are away the school is in trouble, even for the biggest High School you only need to be missing double figures are pupils will either be unsupervised or badly supervised.

So let’s assume we have all the staff in school that day. What about the pupils? If you work in a small village school – as my wife does – the majority of pupils are probably walked in by their parents. But larger primaries (like my daughter's) and all High Schools (like mine) take their pupils from a large catchment area. To give Iain some idea, my school has pupils from Yarmouth, Diss, Cromer and Swaffham. You don’t get much more travel than that. So the kids struggle in, the snow falls and come 3.30pm they can’t get home again. Trust me, on Wednesday as the snow started to fall parents were turning up to collect pupils and others were requesting they leave school early. A few years back I can remember standing on the playground at gone 5pm still waiting for parents to collect all because we opened in the snow. No teacher pushes the kids out of the door at 3.30pm and doesn’t care what happens to them then. A 2-3hr bus journey home is unacceptable for 11 year olds.

So now let’s assume we get all the teachers in, plus the kids and that they can get home okay. What kind of learning do you think is going on? A simple rule of teaching is that it is impossible to get anything done when it is snowing outside. On Wednesday my double History lesson 9.05-10.30 was going great guns; the snow started and the kids ground to a halt. Even closing the blinds didn’t work! What should we do with them? Teach or babysit?

So now let’s assume we get all the teachers in, plus the kids and that they can get home okay, and that they are learning ok. What about the times when they go outside? We can’t trap 1400 High School kids inside during break and lunch; the playgrounds are almost un-patrolable. This is your chance, as a pupil, to pelt your least favourite teacher with snow – dangerously and yes, it can hurt – and get away with it because the chance of seeing who threw a snowball at the back of your head is nil. No wonder extra staff don’t want to go outside when some petty adolescents want to get their revenge on you with no chance of being sanctioned. I have know circumstances where teachers have been hurt (snow, ice, stones inside them etc) and yet nothing can be done to redress this.

So now let’s assume we get all the teachers in, plus the kids and that they can get home okay, and that they are learning ok and that teachers are willing to do duty. Now what about the school site? My school is based around several buildings and the pupils have to move between sites. Our site team are excellent and are out from 5.30 and yet you still cannot guarantee that things are safe. Yes, I’ve known pupils falling and the parental complaints that follow. Yes, I’ve known teachers falling and all of the fall out that follows. There have been legal issues, of course, but what about the genuine health & safety issue here?

And finally there is the argument that snow falling is one of the events that kids always remember, and the chance to tabogan or sledge is one of life’s great moments. Let’s give it to them.

Iain, it isn’t as easy to say “open” or “close”; it is a myriad of factors. Every school, every Head and every teacher is aware of the knock-on impact we have. It is the toughest decision anyone can make at 6am to decide to open or close.

This is an issue nobody will ever get right all of the time, but we have to trust the professionalism of our Headteachers rather than carping on when things don’t go the way we want them. Schools are odd because although nearly all of us have been through them, very few really understand how they work. Or to put in another way,

For every parents who complains that a school is shut, there is one who is concerned that their kids are not properly supervised on a site still covered in ice.


Sazzy said...

Well said sir, at least JP has ensured exams are going ahead regardless of this arctic winter.

If I don't see you in school on Monday, I shall send you my little stack of politics so you can get the ol' red pen out on it. Thanks for bothering to post questions, big help, really.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Antony.

Essentially whinging/pressure comes from confusion of what schools are primarily about; that is high quality education for the benefit of children (not parents) and the safety of staff and pupils. Snow largely disrupts this.

As Antony correctly discusses; every school is different as are its circumstanes/site.

Most teachers are working from home planning, marking and assessing pupils work..which makes for better education for pupils on school's opening.

My guess is that teachers do have their children at other snow closed schools, and have parental responsibilities themselves. Perhaps schools could be more organised in supplying webbased homework organised for such snow days so education may continue at home.

Some parents and businesses become confused and fixated over the real main reason of schools existing for them, namely as a lifestyle right for them; namely dropping kids off between 8.30am-4.00pm at schools for child minding for parents, whilst they go out working and non parental activities. After a couple of days school closure and full time parenting; some parents/business's start to pressure schools for mainly these non educational reasons. This is totally unreasonable if the site isn't safe and the headteacher is pressure into carrying unreasonable and excessive site safety liability; headteachers (should be supported 100% over their judgements) tend to know their site, and how safe/dangerous it is.

Captain Picard said...

I think your argument is spot on Antony and Iain Dale is just indulging in lazy analysis, just like his position on Educational Maintenance Allowances.

Anonymous said...

Great post Antony.

Captain Picard said...

Antony, on the issue of Education do you agree with the policy of Educational Maintenance Allowances or do you share Iain Dale's opinion that they are a waste of money?

Dan said...

"What should we do with them? Teach or babysit?"

Is the top and bottom of the argument, for the odd day provide good quality education or close is a reasonable call.

We are now talking potentially weeks and Hospitals do not care if the nurses children are taught, they care if the nurses can get to work.

If some form of childcare is not provided by schools so parents who work in essential services can get to work what should happen?