This article was written for Inside Government.
The Covid-19 pandemic provided school leaders with a crash-course in crisis management. And, although I’m sure we all hope we don’t have to use these new-found skills any time soon, it is worth unpacking what we’ve learned because crises, though certainly not commonplace, do plague us from time to time.
During my tenure as a senior leader and headteacher, I had several crises to deal with including the murder of one pupil by another, the sudden death of a much-loved colleague, fires and floods, bomb threats, and of course ‘snow-day’ closures. None of these crises compares with the scale of the Covid pandemic, of course, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for every colleague who’s worked hard to keep their schools calm and orderly and to protect their pupils over the last year or so.
So, what can school leaders do to help prepare for the unexpected and to manage a crisis as it unfolds?
First, let’s define our terms… what is a crisis?
Raphael (1986) identified the following characteristics of ‘crises’:
• rapid time sequences
• an overwhelming of the usual coping responses of individuals and communities
• severe disruption, at least temporarily, to the functioning of individuals or communities
• perceptions of threat and helplessness and a turning to others for help.
Originating in the work of Caplan (1964), many organisations use a prevention, preparation, response, recovery model (PPPR) of crisis management which describes three levels of intervention:
1. Primary intervention, which consists of activities devoted to preventing a crisis from occurring (this would equate to prevention in the PPPR model);
2. Secondary intervention or the steps taken in the immediate aftermath of a crisis to minimise the effects and keep the crisis from escalating (this would equate to response);
3. Tertiary intervention, which involves providing long-term follow-up assistance to those who have experienced a severe crisis (this would equate to recovery).
I’ll adapt steps 1 and 2 of this model and articulate some best practice advice on how to manage a crisis before and during the emergency…
Before the crisis
There are two key actions I would recommend taking by way of preparation for an emergency:
1. Write a crisis management plan
2. Put together a crisis management team
A crisis management plan tends to work best when:
• It is developed in a consultative, participative manner to ensure it is realistic and achievable, and that everyone understands it and is committed to enacting it.
• The individuals and agencies who will be involved in implementing the plan are involved in its initial development.
• It is accompanied by risk assessments which aid the planning process.
• It considers liability issues, response plans, people’s roles during and after the emergency, and the support resources available.
• It addresses and define the tasks and responsibilities of all positions and all organisations likely to become involved.
• It identifies positions of responsibility (i.e. job titles) rather than people’s names.
• It is based on appropriate expectations of how people are likely to act/react.
• It is regularly reviewed and updated, including with key contact information.
• It begins with a flowchart showing what action is taken by whom and when.
Before implementing the plan, it should be discussed with the key staff who are nominated within it in order to ensure they are fully aware of their roles and responsibilities.
A staff meeting should be scheduled to share this with all staff. Training should be considered for appropriate staff in relation to some of the main types of incidents they are likely to face.
A hard copy of the plan should be kept in a central location. A member of staff should be responsible for ensuring emergency contact information is kept up to date. Current lists of contact phone numbers should be available in hard and electronic versions – both staff and student details. The headteacher and nominated staff should keep a copy of the current plan and all contact details at home, whilst strictly obeying GDPR legislation of course, because emergencies can happen when the school is not occupied.
In order to minimise the effect of any emergency, a school should thoroughly prepare to ensure that all emergencies are dealt with smoothly and efficiently, with the minimum of stress to pupils, staff and others.
The establishment of a crisis management team should be one of the first steps taken. This team needs to include staff from a variety of job roles within school, and not just senior leaders and teachers. A member of admin staff, site staff and learning support should be included so that all areas of school life are considered and are helped to prepare for an emergency. Having a representative team will also ensure more effective and efficient communication when disaster hits.
It may be helpful for the senior leadership team to run through a hypothetical crisis situation during a team meeting, modelling their ‘real time’ response, in order to identify the short, medium and long-term actions that need to be taken and which external agencies need to be involved.
Although finding time to perform such a modelling exercise during the busy school term will be difficult, it will pay dividends. Not only will be prove valuable CPD for leaders; it will also save time in a real crisis when it matters most.
During the crisis
Here are some suggestions for how you might mitigate some of the worst effects of a crisis and help others cope with an emergency as it unfolds…
Appreciate that, during a crisis, staff, pupils and parents/carers will be under immense stress and as such may not always act as professionally or courteously as you’d like or expect them to do, and they may occasionally take their frustrations out on you. It is not personal; you must not take it to heart. You are a figurehead, a community leader, and it is what you represent, not who you are, that sometimes makes you a target for their vitriol.
You need to understand staff’s pressure-points and provide help dealing with stress and managing mental health. You need to be acutely aware of changes in any colleague’s general demeanour and behaviour, and you need to make sure all staff know where to go for help and repeatedly signpost staff to appropriate services.
Be patient and forgiving
You also need to be understanding if some parents/carers don’t want to follow the party line. Some parents will disagree with you whatever decision you take during a crisis, and some will feel the need to vent their anger publicly. Others will simply ignore your advice or direction and undermine you.
Again, you need to try to appreciate that this is a very testing time for everyone, and people need your patience and understanding more than ever. People need your leadership during a crisis and good leaders are magnanimous and benevolent. And, ultimately, when it is over, your detractors will need to be forgiven for any poor choices they make in the eye of the storm.
It’s tempting at times of heightened stress to descend to your bunker. And you’ll certainly need time to think through and make important decisions, as well as to craft regular communications to all your stakeholders. But, as I say above, people really need your leadership during a crisis and that means you need to lead from the front. So be visible, be available, and be kind. If it’s possible, get out and walk the floor. Be outside school at the start and end of the day to field questions and concerns from parents. If you can’t be, make sure a member of the senior team is always visible and available.
People will need to know what’s happening and they will need to feel informed and involved. Regular, measured communications are therefore vital during this crisis.
You should try to sound human in your written communications so don’t just copy and paste the official line; rather, put it into friendly language that reflects your local context and sounds like you.
Whilst avoiding the verbatim parroting of the official line, do still share useful links to official sources.
Beware of the tone and potential mis-readings of your written communications. Often, it’s best to word lengthy communications as FAQs because these can help reduce the possibility of there being misunderstandings and will also help keep your messages focused and relevant.
You should be open to questions and suggestions – indeed, use each communication to positively invite feedback. But, having said this, it will also be important to address misinformation firmly and publicly so you shouldn’t be afraid to correct misunderstandings and directly tackle unhelpful rumours, as well as refute feedback that’s simply wrong.
Don’t be afraid to repeat key messages and good advice, and to communicate via a number of methods including via email, text, on the school website, and so on.
It’s important during a fast-moving crisis to date-stamp all content because messages change quickly, and you will want to make sure everyone is acting on the latest advice. Regularly review and update information shared via your website to ensure it is kept up to date.