August 2017


  • Leading thoughts
    Geoff Barton reflects on his journey meeting hundreds of school and college leaders since taking up the role of ASCL General Secretary three months ago. More
  • School heroes
    Character and resilience education helps pupils to develop important life skills says former Headteacher Ben Slade. Here he highlights a new programme being delivered by ex-service personnel in schools. More
  • Be prepared
    Recent incidents in Manchester and London affected everyone, including many of our own pupils and staff, says Headteacher Richard Sheriff. Here he highlights what leaders can do to prepare for such instances. More
  • Sense and accountability
    ASCL’s Primary and Governance Specialist Julie McCulloch on the current problems with primary assessment and the launch of a new ASCL-led independent review of primary accountability. More
  • Keeping your head
    Reassuringly, new research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that retention of headteachers in the education system is about 90%. However, there is still work to be done, as this figure does appear to be declining over time says NFER’s Karen Wespieser. More
  • Education post-brexit
    What should education look like in a post-Brexit Britain? Here ASCL Director of Policy Leora Cruddas explores the future of our education system. More
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Recent incidents in Manchester and London affected everyone, including many of our own pupils and staff, says Headteacher Richard Sheriff. Here he highlights what leaders can do to prepare for such instances.

Be prepared

As school and college leaders, we are expected to know what to do in these moments and yet almost none of us will have been trained or will have prepared to deal with the consequences of such tragedies. Knowing what to do, what to say and who to say it to, when you yourself are also trying to deal with the emotions of the moment, is one of the biggest leadership challenges we will face.

Over the last fifteen years of headship, I have sadly had to deal with a variety of such occasions, all very different but perhaps none as truly dreadful as the attack deliberately targeting children at a pop concert. A number of our students were at the concert and two were seriously injured, thankfully now beginning their return to school. My response, the day after the attack, was shaped by the fantastic advice and support I have had over many years from school leaders much wiser than I. They provided me with what has become almost a checklist of responses. The list is not intended to be exhaustive but I hope it may help colleagues to draw up their own list based on their particular circumstances:

Don’t panic!

Don’t rush to respond. Make sure you know what has actually happened first. It is often mis-information that arrives with you first.

Thinking time

Close your door for a few minutes. Take just a few minutes away from the people and the phone. Take stock and consider your response. Your PA, or whoever fulfils a similar role for you, needs to help manage information flow to you and give you the space to operate – cancel everything else.

Team work

Get your team around you. Share what you know between you and decide who does what. Critical incidents need a team approach from the start.


Use your communications lead to ensure that your messages get out, that key messages get to you and that any media enquiries are dealt with politely with a ‘we will be in touch shortly’ message. If you don’t have a communications lead, decide who on your team can take on that role and spend time talking through with them what you will want in such situations. As early as possible, draft a statement that you can use with parents, staff, governors and the media. The statement will give you time and help you deal with the clamour of information that can distract you from looking after the people affected.


This is a time when the support from your chair of governors or trust CEO can really be appreciated, and you also have a duty to keep them informed. Make sure that governors are part of your communications strategy.

Pastoral needs

You will need to keep perspective and be there for those affected but your focus also has to be on the rest of the school community. Therefore, it is better if the immediate pastoral needs of students affected, including contact with parents, is delegated to another member(s) of your team. It is also usually better that pupils and their families deal with a familiar face, which may not be you but their head of year, key stage leader and so on. Rushing out to comfort individuals will draw you away from your role, which is to lead the response. Your face-to-face work can be done later.

External support

For those affected directly, there are likely to be a range of external agencies involved in supporting them in dealing with the immediate effects and longer-term impact of events. Working closely with them is crucial but you will need to wait until they are in a position to be able to talk to you.

Support for pupils in school

Pupils will often want to be supported by those who know them best: parents, friends, form tutors and so forth. Encourage pupils to speak when they want to about how they feel and give them a safe place to do this. Making a quiet space with a friendly face available for pupils who need it can be a real help and can be set up straight away. And remember that one of the best ways to support pupils is by providing them with a normal, happy, safe school environment with familiar routines and faces.

Think about whether you need to provide a positive way for pupils to respond in the medium to long term. This may mean setting up a book of condolence, raising money for a specific charity, or organising a commemorative event. Think carefully about memorials placed within the school grounds; they can become very sad places for other pupils and will eventually not have the relevance to others that they do now. There is no right or wrong way to proceed, however, it will be up to you to decide what is right in your community. You also need to consider whether to reflect on events within your assembly, personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) programme or elsewhere in the curriculum. Use the opportunity where possible to connect values such as tolerance and kindness to make a positive connection with events and your work as a school community.

Social media

The old days of breaking news to students via assemblies are long gone; social media means you can’t control the information flow – you will be chasing, not leading the information trail. It can also mean that more young people are affected in the immediate aftermath as they are able to view virtually live footage from the scene that can have a profound effect on them. Some of this may come from those involved or be posted online by well-meaning parents who want to share images of the impact on their own child. Although you should encourage parents not to share such images via social media, it is unlikely you can control it completely. Having your communications lead monitor Twitter and the school Facebook page is worthwhile during and immediately after these events. You may at least have some idea of what your pupils are being exposed to.

Stay calm and carry on

Focus on keeping things as normal as possible but at the same time put support in place where it is needed. Returning students will often welcome cheerful normality with minimum fuss and an opportunity to move on with their lives. Others will require continuing support that is sometimes beyond your capabilities. Your LA or trust may have access to specialist counselling services and educational psychologist input, so make sure you know what is available before the day arrives that you need their help.

After the event

Take time to review – very honestly – how you dealt with the situation as a team; learning together like this strengthens you for the next time. Lessons learnt can be incorporated within your Critical Incidents Response Plan where you set out practical steps that cover all such eventualities.

Finally, look after yourself

Dealing with such events can be highly stressful and traumatic for leaders, too. Make sure you take time to reflect and find a trusted colleague, governor, friend or family member you can share your own thoughts with.

We can’t prepare for all eventualities. We never know what is going to happen next and recent events have shown us that even the unthinkable is possible. We can, however, prepare ourselves and our teams to work together to manage incidents so we can avoid making a drama out of a crisis in our own schools and colleges.

Richard Sheriff is Headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School and CEO of Red Kite Learning Trust