THE first major snowfall of the winter led to dozens of school closures yesterday and chaos on roads across the region.

Schools in County Durham were worst hit. A total of 69 were forced to close as a result of heavy snow and ice.

Many shut because of transport difficulties, with staff and pupils finding themselves stranded because of treacherous road conditions.

However, some school heating systems were caught out by the cold snap, while one school, Jesmond Road, in Hartlepool, was closed when eight classrooms flooded after water leaked through the roof.

While the closures meant many youngsters were given the day off to enjoy the snow, some parents were less happy.

One parent, whose child attends Aycliffe Village Primary School, in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, said: "The school was shut on Friday because the heating went down.

"Then today it was open in the morning.

"Then they took the decision to close it because there were delays with people getting in.

"People were a bit confused, and some parents were unhappy about what was going on and what they were being told."

But teachers said the weather left them with no choice.

Carol Musztacs, headteacher of Kelloe Primary, in County Durham, said: "All of the teaching staff live outside Kelloe and they telephoned to say the roads were really bad and the traffic warnings were severe.

"We just felt we couldn't have the children in school without the teaching staff there."

Aside from County Durham, other local education authorities reported school closures, with up to 15 in North Yorkshire, seven in Darlington and four in Hartlepool.

On the roads, major delays were reported on all of the region's main routes.

The A19 was blocked by an accident near Hartlepool yesterday morning and several vehicles were involved in a collision near the A1 at Darlington.

A four-car accident between Darlington and Newton Aycliffe, on the A1(M) northbound at 7.40am, was cleared quickly by police, but it caused chaos with tailbacks stretching for miles down both carriageways.

Across County Durham, police were forced into action to help clear vehicles stuck in roadside drifts.

A spokeswoman for Durham Police said they had continued to deal with minor accidents throughout the day.

She said: "We've had quite a number of minor bumps and shunts.

"Happily, people have been exchanging details and then getting on their way."

Major delays were also reported on the A64, near York, yesterday morning as rush-hour traffic attempted to negotiate the wintry conditions.

City of York councillor Tracey Simpson-Laing, Labour opposition transport spokeswoman, called for an inquiry into why there were not more gritters on the roads.

"I've never seen the traffic back up like this before," she said.

Two collisions on the A1(M), at Scotch Corner and further south near the A59 junction, meant more frustration for motorists.

Responding to criticism, North Yorkshire County Council said it had sent out 100 gritters during the day and put 150 farm contractors on stand-by to clear roads in the more remote parts of the county.

Last night, the gritting fleet was out treating key roads, and teams were on standby to respond in the event of further severe snow storms.

The snow blanketed large parts of the North-East, with up to 4in in some areas of Northumberland and County Durham.

All priority routes remained open last night, but some roads were passable only with care, highways authorities said.

Meanwhile, forecasters said the snowy weather was expected to last until next weekend, making it the longest cold spell this year.

They warned that Britain should brace itself for more sleet and snow showers overnight across much of the country, along with sub-zero temperatures.

Joanne Grimshaw, from the PA WeatherCentre, said: "The main problem will be a drop in temperature in eastern areas overnight, bringing ice and frost. This could cause problems for rush-hour traffic."

The Highways Agency said it advised drivers to be prepared with a winter weather kit, including warm clothes, a hot drink, de-icer, a torch and a spade.