Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Shutting schools isn’t a holiday for staff, insists union

A leading teachers’ union has defended the number of school closures in Northern Ireland sparked by the adverse weather conditions stating that staff are not “treating it like a holiday”.

Almost 90 schools were forced to shut after heavy snowfalls hit Northern Ireland on Monday night.

As commuters attempted to battle their way into work yesterday — with up to 5-10cm of snow falling in areas — thousands of parents were forced to make last-minute childcare arrangements.

An established parents’ advice organisation described it as a “stressful’ time for parents, but the Ulster Teachers’ Union said there was always “sufficient grounds” when a decision is made to close a school.

Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary for the Ulster Teachers’ Union, said there is clear criteria to follow.

“There is always a balance obviously and no principal will close a school easily,” she said.

“There has got to be sufficient grounds, it is not the fact staff are going to get a day off. And most staff will be working at home, if they can’t get into school they will be preparing work so it is not as if they are treating it like a holiday.”

Ms Callaghan added: “The health and safety of pupils was always paramount. Obviously you have to balance that with the disruption to the education system and we wanted something that would maintain the confidence of parents and local communities as well.”

Pip Jaffa from the organisation Parenting NI said the unpredictability of the weather and school closures over the last week have become a very stressful time for parents.

“What parents are saying to us is they have to be at home because the school is closed and their other half can’t take the time off work, or somebody has to compromise,” she said.

“Then there are issues if childcare is available and I know parents are worried about vital hours of school coming up to exams.

“So, if a school is closed for most of a week they are missing out.

“Childcare is a massive issue and if they are coming to the parents’ house, can they get there?

Ms Jaffa added: “There have been really concerning stories with small children in cars trying to get home, hungry, tired and stuck in a traffic jam for hours —so the whole thing is not good.

“In a busy family life most things that happen are dependent on a lot of factors falling into place to make it happen — it does have a domino effect.

“You need to have an ultra-|patient parent for that stress not to leak out.”

In a statement from the Department of Education, a spokeswoman said the decision to close a school due to bad weather is “entirely a matter for the schools themselves”.

“There will be a number of factors that principals need to take into account when coming to a decision about whether or not they should close their school but ultimately the key factor will be health and safety,” a spokeswoman said.

“Schools are aware of the importance of avoiding unnecessary disruption to education and they will strive, where possible, to stay open. However, it is important to note that the school principal is the key person in making this decision.

“They are the people ‘on the ground’ who have the local knowledge and experience to assess the situation. It is the principal who ultimately has responsibility.”

For advice, parents can call the Parents’ Helpline: 0808 8010 722

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