Deciding on whether the Academy should be open or closed in the event of adverse weather is one of those decisions which rests solely with me, the Headteacher. This week I have had to make that decision, and I thought it might be helpful to blog about how and why it was made.
Closing the school is highly disruptive. It gets in the way of lessons and learning, but also all of the events, meetings, interviews, activities and discussions that have been planned, often well in advance. We have nearly 1500 students, so the decision to close has an impact on hundreds and hundreds of families across our communities. It is not a decision I can take lightly. Whatever I decide will please some and frustrate others.
This week’s cold weather and snowfall was no surprise. The “beast from the east” was well-advertised. I received twice-daily updates from the delegated services team, providing risk analysis based on the changing weather forecast from the Met Office. North Somerset Council re-published their advice about what to do in case of closure. Senior staff at the Academy ran through the procedures and processes in case we had to close- although we hoped we wouldn’t have to.
The question I ask myself in this situation is: “is it safe to open the school?”
Most of our students travel to school on buses, many from rural communities. Our staff – nearly 150 adults – travel in from across the region. Would it be safe for students and staff to travel? If staff are unable to get into school, will I have enough adults to ensure that students are properly supervised and have access to the high-quality teaching to which they are accustomed and entitled? Will the site be safe?
By Wednesday it became clear that the snow was coming. The Met Office shifted their Amber warning to early afternoon on Thursday. The Chief Forecaster’s assessment read:
Widespread snow is expected to develop through Thursday afternoon and evening, accompanied by strong easterly winds, leading to drifting of lying snow in places. Around 10-20 cm is likely to fall quite widely, with the potential for up to 50 cm over parts of Dartmoor and Exmoor. As less cold air follows from the south, there is a chance of snow turning to freezing rain in places, with widespread icy stretches forming making driving conditions dangerous. The warning has been updated to reflect the growing confidence of a severe spell of weather.
I consulted during the day with my senior team, primary Headteachers in the Churchill cluster, and local secondary Headteachers. By early evening, it was clear that the worst of the weather was forecast for the afternoon of the next day – Thursday. Our usual closing time – 3:20pm – was right in the middle of the heaviest forecast snowfall and high winds were predicted to make the air temperature of -4°C feel like -12°C. The morning looked okay, however – cold, with strong winds, but snow not forecast to start falling until later on.
Rather than put off a decision until the morning, I thought that families and students deserved as much notice as possible so that they could make arrangements. I sent emails to key senior staff, spoke on the phone to one of our site team, organised contact with the bus companies and consulted the Chair of Governors. I then notified all staff via email of the plan for the next day. At 8pm on Wednesday we notified families that we would be open in the morning, but closing early at 1:10pm. I decided that this was the best compromise: we could still get four lessons worth of learning done, but students and staff should be able to get home safely.
Why not close for the whole day? Because there was a chance to get some meaningful learning done, and closure has to be a last resort. Why not stay open for the whole day? Because, in my judgment, the risks of staying open at that point outweighed the benefits.
In the end, school closure is a judgment call. This week, I had to make that call – and I did so, as with all my decisions, in the best interests of the students and the staff of the Academy. Whilst I’m sure not everyone will agree with me, I hope you at least understand my reasoning.
Stay safe, stay warm and – if you can – enjoy the snow.