Thursday 14 January 2010

Why schools were closed

My son’s primary school is a wonderful institution, but I must admit I am beside myself with rage that it was closed again yesterday, after a few flurries of snow. And I am much calmer about it than some other parents, whose jobs and lives are less flexible than mine.

What is galling about this is the way the public sector under New Labour has come to treat us. A £50 fine per day if our child doesn’t attend school for what they consider an adequate reason. A £100 fine if we don’t get our tax return in on time. Fines for bin abuse – is there such a term? – and goodness knows what else.

Yet the moment there is a small amount of discomfort or risk, in this case of slipping over – or of the school not having the requisite number of staff – and the public sector abandons their responsibilities entirely.

I am aware also that the school was not actually being lazy, in this case – though I can think of local institutions where there is really no other explanation. They were responding to the limitations in their public liability insurance policies. In fact, what has been happening is not so much that people are becoming more risk averse – as politicians will endlessly tell you – it is that insurers are forcing their clients to become so. The health and safety industry – a huge and labyrinthine priesthood – is now, in effect, the cheerleader for the insurance industry.

This is a central political issue, or it ought to be. At stake is the way we live our lives, and whether the public sector can succeed in sloughing off their own risks onto us. We are witnessing, not the elimination of risk (that’s impossible), but the privatisation of it. And if we don’t want our institutions to become meaningless empty shells, we need to do something about it.

1 comment:

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I think there is a real danger of reading too much in this. We haven't had snow like this in over 20 years and it has caught everyone by surprise. Schools and local authorities no longer have contingencies in place, so when it happens things fall apart. Organisations are having to relearn what do so in such eventualities.

What is unclear at the moment is whether this is a one off or start of a trend. A number of climate scientists predict a medium term global cooling period due to oceanic cycles (as a sidenote, this is the worst possible timing given the likelihood of LONG term warming, but there you go). If it is the start of a trend then I strongly suspect things we won't see a repeat of the past month.

Indeed, we've already seen how councils are learning. The Feb 09 snow caught people on the hop; by comparison the cold snap in December was dealt with relatively well. What they didn't account for was cold weather on quite this scale.

And while we're busy condemning the councils, it has also been observed that people aren't clearing their own bits of pavement. Again, rather than viewing this as evidence of the breakdown of society, I suspect this will change if snow becomes a regular feature of British weather again.

I think we should accept that these things happen, learn from it and move on. To read too much into it would be to confuse an anecdote with a dataset (as the climate change sceptics who think this means we have nothing to worry about do).