As winter approaches, staff and students will be spending more time indoors. Ventilating indoor work areas, whilst at the same time ensuring a comfortable working temperature, will become more and more challenging.
School closure advice
The Department for Education (DfE) advises that any decision to close a school is for head teachers, since they know their schools and the surrounding area. DfE advice is that head teachers should use common sense in assessing the risks and keep their schools open whenever it is safe to do so. Schools can improve their readiness and planning for severe weather by signing up to the Met Office’s severe weather warning system.
Severe weather may mean that some schools are unable to open as planned (for instance, because of broken heating or frozen pipes) or that some students and staff are unable to reach their school. Where schools are unable to open, they should try to minimise disruption by informing parents, providing as much notice as possible, using their website, ParentMail, local media or other suitable arrangements.
The DfE advises that head teachers should not be worried about the impact that remaining open may have on their attendance statistics. When a pupil cannot get in because of severe weather, the school can use attendance code Y, which means that the pupil’s absence will not affect the attendance statistics.
The Department of Health (DoH) has published an annual cold weather plan for England since 2011. It is part of the wider suite of measures which the DoH 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 winter planning.
On some occasions schools may need to close early because of rapidly deteriorating conditions and problems with transport home. Schools should have systems in place for alerting parents in such circumstances.
When schools have been closed due to adverse weather conditions or staff have been unable to get into school, they should not be expected to make up the time at a later date. Any attempts from employers to recoup this time, for instance through a loss of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, is unreasonable and should be resisted at school level. The school closure should be considered a necessary response to potentially unsafe conditions and staff should not be penalised for this when normal arrangements resume.
Asbestos risks associated with flooding
Severe cold weather can cause pipes to freeze; this can have implications for schools both before and after the period of cold weather. For instance, consideration will need to be given to school closures where frozen pipes have caused a loss of heating and hot water, or have rendered facilities such as toilets unusable.
Thawing can cause frozen pipes to burst and lead to flooding. Flooding and water ingress in areas where asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are present or potentially present could lead to asbestos fibres being released. A variety of materials within the school that are liable to water damage may contain asbestos, including ceiling tiles, walls, floor tiles, air cabinet heaters, insulating boards and toilet cisterns.
Therefore, it is vital that access by staff and pupils to any areas of schools affected by flooding and water ingress is restricted until it is confirmed whether asbestos is present.
If the employer is unable to confirm whether ACMs are present, it should be presumed that they are. Where ACMs have been damaged by water ingress, the employer must employ a licensed contractor to undertake the necessary remedial works, which is likely to include removal of the damaged ACMs. Air testing must be conducted by an appropriately qualified contractor before the areas of the school in question can be re-occupied.
Frequently asked questions
During any prolonged spell of severe cold or snowy weather, issues arise on which members and school health and safety representatives need advice, particularly in relation to school closure. The questions and answers set out below deal with some of the most common questions which are raised.
- My head teacher is putting pressure on staff to get into school. Is this reasonable?
While it is fair enough to expect staff, particularly those who are very local, to make reasonable attempts to get to work if their school is open, head teachers should not expect staff to ignore official advice not to travel and put themselves at risk. It is sometimes suggested that if traffic organisations recommend only ‘essential travel’ that this includes pupils going to school and staff going to work. Such an interpretation of essential travel, if adopted, would result in no decrease of traffic whatsoever. In our view essential travel is that which is needed to protect people, for example, medical or emergency services, gritting services, food supplies etc.
- My school has been closed for a week. Will we have to make up this time either this term or in the summer term?
No, this would be unreasonable, given that term dates are published more than 12 months in advance, and that staff and parents will in many cases have made holiday plans. Contact your local association or division if this is proposed.
- I’ve had to miss two days of school because my own child’s school was closed as a result of the snow. Will I be paid?
There is a statutory right to take unpaid leave of absence for family and domestic reasons for incidents involving employees’ dependants. In addition, there may also be a contractual entitlement to a certain number of days’ paid leave by virtue of a local agreement. Schools should look generously upon requests for paid leave of absence in these exceptional circumstances, particularly given that education staff cannot take annual leave in the way that other employees can.
- My school is closed to pupils but staff have been directed to attend where possible. Is this reasonable?
No, if the school has been closed because it has been deemed unsafe or inappropriate for pupils to attend, then staff should not be expected to attend work. Staff are likely to be affected by travelling difficulties in similar ways to students, and poor conditions within the school, such as frozen pipes, would present an unacceptable working environment for staff too.
- If I cannot attend, will I still be paid?
As far as pay is concerned, the NEU will challenge any attempts to withhold pay from staff who are genuinely unable to attend work.
- The head teacher has directed us to assist with shovelling snow and treating paths with grit/salt. Is this reasonable?
Definitely not. Such tasks are only part of the duties of premises staff.
- I can’t get to my own school because of the snow and my head teacher has suggested that I offer my services at my nearest school. Is this a sensible idea?
No it isn’t. It would not be helpful for schools to have strangers turning up offering their services. Quite apart from the issue of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, the idea is totally impracticable. Schools need to make decisions about closure early in the morning or the previous evening. Such decisions cannot be made based on the off-chance that other teachers might be available to help out.
- More than half of the pupil toilets in my school are unusable due to frozen pipes. Would this be a good enough reason to close the school?
This could well be the case, depending on the number of toilets available and how quickly the problem can be remedied. Certainly a lack of toilets (and also warm water for hand washing) can very quickly become a health issue.