24 January, 2013
Over 5,000 schools across England are reported to have closed this because of the severe weather. Graham Newman, Conservative cabinet member for education and young people, said he was disappointed at the closures. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education declared that, "Everything can and should be done" to keep schools open during the wintry weather.
Head teachers make the final difficult decision on whether to close schools. Most head teachers have cited the health and safety of the pupils and staff as the reason for school closures, but is the real reason for the closures in fact the fear of an influx of claims for personal injury?
There is a legal duty under the Occupiers' Liability Act 1957 to take reasonable care to see that visitors are reasonably safe whilst using school premises. This duty can extend to making sure that paths, walkways and other areas are clear of potential hazards caused by wintery conditions. In addition, the school owes a duty to members of staff under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
There is some protection offered under the legislation, the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 requires only that steps are taken to ensure that the premises are kept safe as far as is reasonable for lawful visitors and under Regulation 12(3) Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 schools must ensure that they have taken reasonable practicable steps to avoid the risk of accidents due to ice and snow.
If schools are therefore to buck the trend and remain open during inclement weather they must take action to reduce (and remove where possible) any risks to safety caused by snow and ice. For example, by having a winter gritting procedure in place, which may consist of clearing snow and closing off dangerous routes on the school site or perhaps clearing a demarcated route which visitors can use with safe access into school.
If a visitor brings a personal injury claim against the school/local authority as a result of a slip or trip on snow or ice, the court will consider the circumstances in which the incident occurred and the steps taken to avoid or minimise the risk of injury. Schools should therefore ensure that they have documented and up to date rigorous risk assessments and detailed policies and procedures in place to deal with such occasions.