When it comes to severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, we expect headteachers to keep schools open for as many pupils as possible whenever it is reasonable for them to do so. Closing schools unnecessarily causes disruption to children’s education, to their parents and to the economy.
It is for individual schools to make any decision to close. They know the local conditions and the contingency possibilities which may allow the school to stay open for some or all pupils. Such decisions should however be based on a common sense approach, having regard to the conditions at the school and the need to continue to provide an education to children whenever feasible.
In most cases the headteacher has day to day responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of staff, pupils and visitors. In severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, we expect headteachers to keep schools open for as many pupils as possible whenever it is reasonable for them to do so. The HSE is very clear that schools should plan ahead and take a sensible and proportionate approach to managing the associated risks. Closing a school could be a reasonable decision if pupils or staff would face significant risks of serious injury. But in many cases it will be possible to keep a school open, as happens routinely in other countries with more severe winters than ours. Where roads are impassable it becomes a practical issue of access not health and safety considerations. For further advice see Departmental advice on health and safety.
Headteachers should not be worried about the impact that remaining open may have on their attendance statistics. In September 2010, we amended the relevant regulations so that, when a pupil cannot get in because of severe weather, the school can mark the register using absence code Y, which means that the pupil’s absence will not affect the attendance statistics. However, if the headteacher believes that a child could have got to school, then the child should be recorded as code O - an unauthorised absence.
Schools have the flexibility to work creatively, perhaps bringing together groups and classes with teachers and support staff working together. There are no maximum general pupil-teacher ratios set out in law; with the exception of the infant class size legislation that limits the size of infant classes to 30 or fewer with a qualified teacher for 5, 6 and 7 year olds. The infant class size limit, which includes reception classes, will not apply unless the majority of the children will reach age 5, 6 or 7 in that school year.
The infant class size limit does not apply to activities normally carried out in larger groups, for example assemblies, sports and other structured or un-structured activities that the school may choose to provide as part of maintaining a good service.
Schools should prepare plans for any disruption to examinations as part of their general emergency planning, and ensure that the relevant staff are familiar with these plans. If a headteacher decides to close a school they will discuss alternative arrangements (such as the use for exams of other public buildings nearby) with the relevant awarding organisation. It is the headteacher’s responsibility to ensure that parents/carers are kept informed of any decisions.
Where a pupil misses an exam because of bad weather the school will discuss contingency plans with the relevant awarding organisations. The action to be taken will aim to safeguard the interests of candidates whilst also maintaining the integrity of the exams. The school is responsible for informing parents and pupils of the actions agreed, which may include the use of alternative venues (e.g. other public buildings nearby); an awarding organisation generating an examination result using evidence of candidates’ likely achievement, based on factors such as their performance on other assessments in the same subject; or the opportunity to sit any missed exam later in the year.
Schools can improve their planning and readiness for severe winter weather by signing up to the Met Office’s severe weather warning system.
The Department of Health’s cold weather plan forms part of the wider suite of measures which the DH and NHS are taking to protect individuals and communities from the effects of severe winter weather. The plan provides advice for individuals, communities and agencies on how to prepare for, and respond to, severe cold weather as part of wider winter planning.
Departmental advice on health and safety covering activities that take place on or off school premises, including school trips.