Lesley Riddoch: Questions about teachers' willingness to struggle to work in the snow are part of a wider issue

It's been snowing. John Lewis has sold all its wellies. A girl has been badly injured by falling snow. Deadly icicles hang from every gutter. A-roads are clear, but icy side roads still paralyse the nation. Truckers will work round the clock to make essential deliveries. Teachers will not. Or cannot. Which is it?

Traditionally the public's pets, teachers have suffered a bad press for failing to brave the snow and go where other private and public sector workers dare to tread. Is that fair?

How hard have teachers been trying to get in? Why did some councils issue blanket closure notices when the effects of the weather seemed to vary across authority areas?

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Why couldn't councils exercise common sense and tell teachers to work at the nearest school if travel to their own school was unsafe or impossible? Well, they did. And that's why many directors of education have been quite happy about the bullish "get to any school" edict from education secretary Mike Russell, even if "sticking his nose in" riled Cosla chief Pat Watters.

The majority of Scottish councils have had precisely this "get to any school" arrangement written into teachers' contracts for years. But much good has it done, thanks to what's called the "cosy culture" encouraged by McCrone. His New Deal for teachers introduced a 35-hour working week with an upper limit on class time. Currently, it's 22.5 hours a week for primary teachers, with 13 non-contact hours to prepare, mark and update lessons. Time that can be taken at home.

Has this prompted some teachers to think they don't need to turn up when it doesn't suit them? Have some treated bad weather as "windfall non-contact days" - more easily worked from home?

Clearly some have. How many? No-one knows. But now everyone cares.

Teachers' pay is usually the biggest single item on a council's balance sheet and last year's 2.4 per cent pay rise occurred against the backdrop of a pay freeze, job cuts and service closures elsewhere. All the more annoying when other workers pass closed school gates as they themselves struggle into work.

Of course, there are valid reasons for teacher non-attendance.

Some have been plain stuck in the snow. Some live at a distance not just from their school but outwith the council boundaries - in East Lothian, for example, many teachers live in Edinburgh. That, together with ubiquitously heavy snow, prompted the council's "blanket closure" decision.

And yet many Edinburgh teachers live in East Lothian. Prior inter-council co-operation could have overcome this apparently insuperable organisational hurdle.But how many of us fix the roof when the sun's shining?

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Education directors have more reason than most to try. Almost all have been headteachers and remember the "bad old days" when hundreds of children were habitually dumped at schools with just one or two teachers present. One education chief remembers being snowed in overnight at a school with hundreds of pupils.

Some teachers question the wisdom of teaching only half the class - arguing that absent kids will fall behind and class unity will disintegrate. But children are always learning at different speeds and presumably good teachers are always coping with that reality.

Today's reality is that non-teaching employees such as janitors, secretaries and cleaners are required to turn up and perform maintenance and other work in schools that are closed because teachers can't/won't attend.

In one council I called, only one member of non-education staff had failed to appear that morning, whereas 20 teachers had stayed away.

Some 20 per cent of staff at the education authority have children in childcare and 60 per cent live in the country. And yet they struggled in.

So how many teachers couldn't and how many wouldn't get to work last week?

The public would like to know, and the government's Resilience Committee should ask. If teachers have taken "McCrone days" instead of walking to work at nearby schools (as their contracts require), who will tackle the issue - especially when teachers' goodwill is needed to embed the new Curriculum for Excellence?

Education directors are pragmatists. Many privately despair about teachers' relatively unproductive non-contact hours as they prepare to close services and make other public-sector staff redundant. Unions say more support staff should be hired. The economic climate makes that solution unlikely.

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So all concerned will simply wait for the review of McCrone due next summer.

It's hard to escape the feeling that everyone - even the normally robust Mike Russell - is dancing around the sensibilities of teachers. But by failing to tackle the minority, all teachers are being tarred with the same brush. That's a shame.

Some teachers have been sufficiently organised and web-savvy to transfer their lessons to the internet via national networks such as Glow and local systems like East Lothian's Edubuzz.

Glow - which has been overcoming big access problems - has shown pupils how to make advent calendars, conduct weather research, study symmetry using snowflakes, create snow journals and measure snow depth.

Edubuzz has had 700 daily posts since the closures began, attracting 25,000 visitors. Some are parents checking closure information but most are pupils learning online. That's good.

With use, all these systems will get better. But that needs planning. People are sick of hearing about our snow-savvy northern neighbours.But it's their ability to plan -not just their regular experience of snow - that sets the Nordics apart.

In Arctic Karashok, the temperature reached minus 54.2 degrees in the late 1990s causing a power failure - that combination had never happened before.

Happily, the municipality had an online record of "household capacity", so within minutes, it had sent husky teams (diesel had frozen) to take five families without wood-burning stoves to the relative warmth of their neighbours. No-one died. In Scotland this winter, pensioners will die 1,000 miles further south.

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People living at killer latitudes need planning to survive. We don't. Planning needs data. We don't gather it. Data gathering requires trust. We don't trust government agencies. Result: stalemate and chaos.

The Big Freeze is a golden opportunity for change - for co-operation, silo-busting, internet-based planning and common sense to become embedded permanently in the way we work.

Ironically, the longer the snow lasts, the higher the odds of fixing endemic organisational weakness.

So, for all our sakes, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.