Back to school but row over closures deepens

THOUSANDS of pupils are set to return to school today for the first time for a week as ministers underline warnings against controversial blanket closures.

• Ninety per cent of school will be open today. Picture: Greg Macvean

Nine in ten schools across Scotland are due to be open today. But the issue of mass classroom shutdowns could resurface with any new significant snowfall.

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Temperatures are expected to plunge again this week, reaching as low as -9C in the capital tomorrow night, followed by a brief spell of milder weather before the big freeze returns next week.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday became the second minister to warn councils against any further blanket shutdowns, insisting they must be a "last resort". Her intervention came after a week which saw parents struggling to cope with childcare.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said local authorities were "caught between a rock and a hard place" but warned school closures can cause "a huge amount of financial and emotional pressure".

Education secretary Mike Russell last week criticised local authorities for issuing orders that all schools in their areas should be closed.

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His intervention earned a rebuke from local authority umbrella body Cosla, and Ms Sturgeon's comments are set to further inflame the row between councils and government. Some schools across eastern Scotland have been closed since heavy snowfalls ten days ago, with all state schools in Edinburgh shutting because of bad weather for the first time in living memory.

East Lothian, Midlothian, West Lothian and Falkirk were among other councils imposing blanket closures last Monday, while Glasgow city council's decision to shut all its schools within 45 minutes of the start of classes last Wednesday came in for heavy criticism from parents.

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Ms Sturgeon yesterday underlined the Scottish Government's opposition to local authorities closing all their schools unless it was unavoidable, saying: "Blanket closures of schools should be a last resort."

She also praised parents who had started clearing access routes in an attempt to ensure schools would reopen. "Where we are able to help, we should help," she said. "Where we are able to do so we should be making efforts to clear our footpaths. All of us can help with that."

Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie last week attacked the blanket closures as "obstructive and inappropriate", which had caused disruption to families.

Edinburgh city council said last night the "vast majority" of its schools would open today. However, nine of its 87 primaries will stay shut. They are: Colinton, Currie, Dean Park, Gilmerton, Nether Currie, Newcraighall, Ratho and St Cuthbert's RC. Clovenstone will be closed but its nursery will open.

A spokesman said: "These are in the south west area where access roads are blocked still. There are also issues with blocked emergency exits.

They're on our priority list for ploughing and gritting, and we expect to be able to open them on Tuesday."

Nursery classes and breakfast clubs have also been cancelled at several other primaries. Five special schools, at Prospect Bank, Gorgie Mills, Kaimes, Oaklands and Woodlands, will also remain closed. All of the council's secondary schools will be open except Liberton High which will be open only for S4-S6.

Other areas where some schools are due to stay closed today include Falkirk, where 16 primaries will be shut, along with 11 in Angus and Cultercullen Primary in Aberdeenshire. Several primaries in Aberdeen will operate reduced hours. School buses will not operate to some schools.

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The Scottish Government said nearly half of the country's councils expected to open all schools, including Argyll & Bute, Dundee, East Ayrshire, East Dunbartonshire, East Lothian, Glasgow, Midlothian, North Lanarkshire, Perth and Kinross, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders, South Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire.

Education secretary Mike Russell said: "We have experienced the worst snowfall at this time of year since 1965. Despite the best efforts of local authorities and school staff, road closures and hazardous conditions made school closures unavoidable in many parts of the country.

"Weather permitting, we are expecting about 90 per cent of schools to open tomorrow (Monday], compared to less than half at the height of last week's disruption.

"We do not expect any blanket school closures and many local authorities which experienced significant disruption last week are hoping to open most, if not all, schools in their area.

"That so many pupils will be able to return to the classroom is down to the truly heroic efforts of everyone who has been clearing snow and ice this weekend.

"There have been cases, for example in East Lothian, where teachers, parents, pupils and other community volunteers have all pitched in to help prepare their local schools for reopening.

"I would like to express my profound thanks to everyone involved for all of their hard work. We would encourage communities to do what they can to keep school routes and pavements free from snow and ice."

Ms Prior said councils and schools were in a "difficult position". She said: "They have to balance the need to educate children against the risk presented by dangerous road conditions and of course also the disruption to home life."

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She added: "For parents the challenges are enormous. Their children's education is being interrupted and no school means time off work or paying for childcare. While some may be able to work from home or come to some arrangement with their employer, for many the reality is different and this can cause a huge amount of financial and emotional pressure."

Education chiefs said last night that most councils already followed Scottish Government advice.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: "The advice from the Scottish Government is common sense and is what local authorities largely do. Blanket closures are exceptional."

In a letter to Mr Russell from Cosla spokeswoman Isabel Hutton, the organisation insisted that no school closure had been taken lightly by local councils.