When the snow season starts and schools have to deal with snow days, I reflect on my ten years of headship and my experience of this particular challenge. As the head of an independent school, the decision to close or stay open was mine, rather than anyone else’s, and I preferred that – even though it could be a difficult decision to make.
I appreciated that under certain conditions it might not be possible for pupils and staff to reach school safely, and I would never urge anyone to take unacceptable risks with their journeys. However, I felt strongly that we should not close the school if we could safely care for and educate any pupils who were able to get there. I was always impressed with the number of dedicated staff, teaching and support, who managed to make it in, so had no doubt that we would always be able properly to supervise and teach the pupils. We would not make the decision to close the school part way through the day so that pupils who had battled through the snow to be there then had to make arrangements to get home again before the usual end of the school day. And if the pupils were there, we would do everything we could to ensure they had a meaningful day’s education, rather than simply keep them occupied. If numbers were significantly reduced, we recognised it might be necessary to combine some classes, but they would always be taught.
On one memorable occasion, we had 120 pupils in school (out of a full complement of 855). As I walked in to school at 7.15am, my solitary footsteps in the snow and the lack of tyre tracks told me no one had gone before me. By 8.30am it was established that no school buses were running and many parents who usually brought their daughters by car weren’t taking the risk. We did have two thirds of the teaching staff, and most of the support staff, and I felt very grateful to them for their dedication and commitment to being there. I had pointed out, though, that I wouldn’t wish anyone to undertake a journey which was unacceptably hazardous. This had to be their call, and I would understand if they did not feel they could get there, just as I understood if the girls could not get there.
Because we were so seriously depleted that day, the issue was not who was absent, but who was present. We had to collapse the timetable and plan our teaching from scratch, looking first at the Sixth Form girls who had made it in, what their subjects were and what we could offer them – in many cases one-to-one tuition! We had clear signing in and out procedures so we knew exactly who was in school at all stages. We gathered everyone together in the dining hall for hot chocolate at the start of the day so we could establish this, and then held one Senior School and one Junior School assembly so we could make clear to all how the day would operate. While I took the impromptu Senior School assembly, senior staff rewrote the timetable.
We fitted everyone in to one sitting for lunch and after we’d eaten we went out to play in the snow – for some girls the highlight of the day was getting to throw a snowball at the Head (and receiving one in return!) After the afternoon break I took all the remaining girls in Years 7 to 13 for a (large but interesting) Drama lesson while the Head of Juniors gathered together all the girls in Years 3 to 6 so that staff could start their journeys home. I left school at 6pm after the last girl had been collected.
As I walked home through the snow that evening I recognised what a stimulating, though exhausting, day it had been (with the possibility that we might have to do it all again the next day…). The school community had risen to the challenge. I felt that as long as we could provide a warm, safe environment for pupils and staff, and as long as we could educate however many, or few, made it in – and I mean educate them, and not just occupy them – then that’s what we should do. And we did!
When I left headship in 2010, I talked in my leaving speech to the staff about the things I was looking forward to. I remember saying that one of these things would be looking out of the window, seeing it was snowing and just thinking, “That’s pretty….”
Best wishes to all schools as they deal with snow day season!
Photo credit: John Berry
A version of this post was originally published on @staffrm