Every school is unique but schools in general are facing greater known risks to their people and reputation than ever before. The current security climate, life-threatening allergies, safeguarding or data breaches, rising mental health issues, increase in minibus/coach travel, growing culture of parental and staff litigation, expanding scope and volume of trips, more high-profile pupils, social media and even ‘fake news’ all present their own risks. Pharos Response has helped schools respond to at least one major incident stemming from each of the above in the past year alone.
When an incident happens, schools will be judged by mitigating actions taken beforehand as well as how they responded in the aftermath. Neither should be left to chance; the consequences of doing so could impact on the welfare of pupils and staff or the school’s hard-earned reputation.
Pharos Response advocates three phases that schools can work through to help prevent incidents from happening, to prepare their teams to manage incidents in advance and to respond swiftly and effectively when an incident occurs. Although schools will have addressed some of the following well, there are typically gaps and oversights that are easier to identify with an external eye, benchmarked against other schools. Otherwise, these gaps are often only exposed when something goes wrong.
It is important to have full visibility of the school’s risks, so they can be managed. Comprehensive (ideally independent) site audits for both safety and security will help to achieve this as well as reviewing risk assessments to ensure they are current. Conduct spot checks to ensure staff haven’t fallen into the time-saving trap of copying and pasting risk assessments from previous trips as the risks are likely to have changed. Policies and procedures should all be up-to-date to ensure compliance and crisis plans be refreshed with new contacts and updated procedures for editing websites or social media, out-of-hours.
Crisis plans are renowned for gathering dust and getting forgotten when a major incident does occur and often too few people know what the plan actually says or how to access it. Take some time to create an incident simulation exercise that the senior or crisis team can work through. Test out the crisis plan and assign roles to individuals, so they know what would be expected in a real incident. Throw in some curveballs; what if the Head was not available, arrange a call from a journalist or change the timeline so a simulated fatality occurs during a trip while key staff are on holiday.
Identify any gaps in experience, resources (such as who will provide your defensive PR) or process and seek to address them before the crisis plan is needed for real.
Pharos Response advocates three phases that schools can work through to help prevent incidents from happening, to prepare their teams to manage incidents in advance and to respond swiftly and effectively when an incident occurs
Speed is of the essence in effective incident management. Can it be guaranteed that the right people will always be accessible, over a weekend, perhaps during a major sporting event, when there’s a school minibus crash? During times of higher risk, such as while trips are underway, set up a rota so someone is always available, in signal and able to drive, to answer the phone day or night. Have the crisis plan to hand with the contact details of people who can provide support – PR and social media, counsellors, etc.
Even after completing these three stages, of course, headteachers still hope a critical incident will never happen but those who have properly prepared should sleep a little easier in the knowledge that if the worst does happen, their team will be ready.
Pharos Response provides a range of risk and reputation management services to the education, adventure and travel sectors. Services include security audits, educational visits advice, staff training, incident simulation exercises and 24/7 incident support from experienced incident managers, communications and social media professionals and trauma counsellors. Schools such as Abingdon, Harrow, Norwich, Taunton, Twyford and King Edward VI have already taken the proactive step of asking Pharos Response to help them prevent against and prepare for critical incidents. If you’d like more information about how your school could be supported, please contact the Pharos Response team.
Chris Gallant is a Director of Pharos Response and crisis communications expert. He is a Trustee of Bellevue Place Education Trust, a school governor and a father of two; his son is in an independent senior school and his daughter is a founding pupil of a local primary free school.