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Parents left feeling cold after snowfall forces closure of 140 schools

By Adrian Rutherford and Rebecca Black

Parents have hit out after snow led to mass school closures across Northern Ireland.

Almost 140 schools across the country shut yesterday.

Officials introduced new guidelines five years ago giving principals licence to close their schools if they believe there is a threat to safety, but it has had a knock-on effect for parents, many of whom were forced to scramble for cover to look after their children yesterday.

Overnight snow had caused problems in many parts of Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas.

Some 139 schools were shut, including 50 in Co Antrim.

Counties Down (35 closures), Tyrone (26 closures) and Armagh (24 closures) were also badly affected. However, some questioned whether the mass closures were an overreaction. DUP MP Sammy Wilson - a former teacher - claimed the weather had been used as an easy excuse.

"We didn't have heavy snow, most people were able to get to work, and sometimes I just wonder if bad weather is an excuse for closing schools that don't need to be closed," he said.

Parents also spoke of their frustration at having to rearrange their day because their children were unexpectedly off.

One parent in Lisburn questioned why Wallace High School shut yet Friends School - situated less than 200 yards away - remained open.

"We have always made far too much of a bit of snow," the parent said.

"Every time the snow comes it is the same situation. School principals are far too quick to err on the side of caution."

Meanwhile, Mr Wilson said he was able to make it to a meeting of Stormont's social development committee yesterday without serious problems.

"The weather wasn't bad enough to close shops or businesses, so why schools?" he added.

"This happens every year and there are complaints that some parents do their best to get youngsters out to school despite the weather, so do teachers and bus drivers.

"But some principals are just far, far too cautious. The least wee skiff of snow and their school is closed down.

"It isn't fair on those who make their way to school."

However, SDLP MLA Sean Rogers, a former school principal, said head teachers were faced with a difficult decision.

Mr Rogers, who sits on the Assembly's education committee, said bad forecasts often dictated schools' decisions.

"It isn't necessarily about the amount of snow that is on the ground at 8am or 9am in the morning and whether children will get in," he said.

"Often the major concern is getting children back home, particularly if more snow is forecast.

"In my time as a principal, getting children to school is one thing, but getting them home was another.

"I understand the position of parents if they are working and expect their children to be in school for the day, but it is a difficult situation for the schools."

The Department of Education said: "The department issued a letter to all schools in early October to remind them of the need to have an action plan in place detailing how schools will deal with any exceptional closures that may arise.

"The decision over whether to close down a school rests with the principal of that institution."

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