HEADTEACHERS may have deliberately closed school gates during the big freeze to avoid getting penalised over attendance figures, a leading councillor has warned.

Essex County councillor Stephen Castle is calling on the Government to change the “nonsensical” way it carries out attendance monitoring.

Last week, hundreds of schools across south Essex were shut because of the weather. However, those making the effort to open could be punished, according to Mr Castle.

Currently, if a school stays open, for example because of bad weather, and only a proportion of pupils attend, the school will be penalised for having a low-attendance rate by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

However, if a school decides to shut, all pupils are marked down as having attended – meaning it gets 100 per cent attendance. The schools inspectorate, Ofsted, then considers absence figures as part of their inspection report of each school.

Mr Castle said evidence from Essex suggests these rules could have been contributing to schools closing because of the poor weather.

Mr Castle, county councillor responsible for education, said “I am calling for the department to make a change to their policy in periods of adverse weather.

“In my opinion, it is nonsensical a school is marked down for opening its doors to the many pupils able to make it in.

“It is wrong heads may feel pressurised into closing because they are worried their absence figures might damage Ofsted reports. This cannot be right.

“We must do everything we can to give schools all the support they need to remain open, rather than penalising them.

“The spring term is an important time for many pupils across the county as this is when many coursework assignments and exam preparation is done.

“I feel closing the schools for days at a time will have a detrimental effect on their learning.”

Mr Castle is also writing to the headteachers of the county’s 470 primary schools, 78 secondary schools and 17 special schools, asking them to think twice before making the decision to close again.