When it Snows Providers Potentially Lose Money

Recent snowfall has resulted in the temporary closure of many providers. This happens somewhere in the country most years, and yet I can find no UK based research on the financial cost of closures.

Logically there must be a cost. Each day’s lost learning must mean students are less well prepared for their exams. This will surely result in a reduction in GLH, lower exam grades or even exam failures which in turn impact a provider’s income.

There are ways to mitigate the impact of snow days. Examples are to be found over the Atlantic where in the US schools and colleges run mandatory Make Up days at the end of the term. This means extra days, sometimes Saturdays, are added to the school year to ensure lost time is made up. School superintendents cite their responsibility to the taxpayer and grant obligations, often based on instructional time, as their rationale. Grant funding is very competitive, and no school wants to miss out on it because they failed to meet instructional requirements.

What surprised me, and perhaps it shouldn’t have, was that I could find no mention of the harm closure does to a student’s education!

The Blizzard Bag Option

In Ohio schools often give a Blizzard Bag of schoolwork to students for them to dip into when snow closures mean they are out of class. They are now considering online programmes that will allow teacher and students to interact whilst schools are closed.

Virtual Schools Days

Ohio’s online programmes are being taken further in some States. School provided laptops and tablets are issued being to students, so their education can continue online.

In Massachusetts snow days are no surprise, they are a regular occurrence. But snow creates few problems because schools and teachers know how to cope with them says Joshua Goodman, a Harvard Assistant Professor. In fact, Goodman believes keeping schools open during snow is more detrimental than closing them. See The effect of snow days on student performance for more details.

The way the Americans look at closure is that planned closures result in all students losing a day’s education and that can be made up en-masse later. But when schools don’t close, some students stay away, and this results in the class being at different stages. Teachers find this much harder to cope with and there is an acceptance that Makeup days are part of school and college life.

To Close or Not To Close? That is The Question

In some States, schools build a few makeup days into their calendar. In Chicago, the magic figure seems to be four extra days. They need them most years and plan for them. But that’s not to say they close at a whim. Take January 2016, despite 2-5 inch of snow across the District, 99% of schools stayed open. And most students arrived safe and sound.

The UK Closure Situation

Quite a few colleges seem to be closed in the UK as I write this. I cannot comment on the wisdom of this; it must be a local decision and I know it’s not an easy one. Health and Safety comes into play and this is especially true in schools.

But the majority of college students are 16+. Those on apprenticeships will be expected to make a decision about the wisdom of going to work, that’s what being an adult is about. So maybe there is an argument for saying colleges should do their best to remain open, and leave the decision to attend with the student and members of staff.

A lot of my time working in colleges was in the land-based sector. With many students being residential, continuing with classes was a no-brainer. We just kept going. The issue was more about staff getting to work than students being able to attend. But staff planned for bad weather and students were never short of work, even if staff were stranded.

The question I pose this week is around what snow preparation has been made at schools and colleges. We saw this snow coming several days ago. In any case, preparing for a day when the lecturer is absent is something we should routinely do anyway … isn’t it?

How many colleges can post work online to students during snow days? How many make use of this? Are students told what to do when snow forces closure? .. I mean in terms of studying. Do you have a way to communicate with the students in your class during closures?

Technology to the Rescue

The advent of apps, 4G and teaching software systems such as VLEs, Google Classroom, Moodle and even Facebook makes snow days more manageable.

The alternative to Snow Days, eDays, are now a viable alternative. Of course, it is harder to have in-depth class discussions via an eDay. But in the real world, for which we are preparing students, the ability to work unsupervised is a cherished skill. So, exploiting eDays to learn how to work unsupervised is not a bad thing.

Another issue to consider is that not everyone can access the Internet from home. Until recently, the village where I live had a very poor broadband connection to the rest of the world. As for mobile signals .. they were non-existent, and even now I have to rely on a signal booster, via the Internet, to get a phone call on my mobile whilst at home.

So preparing for those with a connection and those without makes sense. A mix of Blizzard Bag and eDay might be the answer in many cases. But this is detail. Providers are staffed by teaching professionals well able to design snow day classes. The job of the college is to enable them with infrastructure and guidance.

It’s been some years since I taught in a college. But on day one of each term, I would hand out a project for discussion on the last day of term. The additional instruction was that, in the event of a snow day, the discussion reverted to a written assignment to be handed in on the first day after a snow day. There was no hiding. I expected a piece of work handed in after a snow day.

It’s Not Just About GLH and Incomes

As I said at the beginning, this isn’t just about GLH, exam passes and Ofsted results. Though if we complain of underfunding we need to address these issues if we are to maximise income. What this is really about is the student.

We owe our students the best education possible. I believe that to allow bad weather to erode their learning is unforgivable. If we are to be regarded as a profession we need to offer a professional service. And that means giving of our best and ensuring students get what they deserve.

I don’t believe the FE sector wants to get into the mess that HE is being embroiled; where students are asking for refunds when they don’t get their contracted taught time due to strikes. Bad weather may be an act of God but it is in our gift to mitigate the impact on our student’s education.

Stefan Drew, FHE Marketing Consultant

About Stefan Drew: He was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe, Africa and the US. Underfunded Education.

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