November 2013


  • 21st Century Revolution
    Global comparisons reveal just how radically the demands of education are changing, says Andreas Schleicher, and how the UK and other systems need to respond or be left behind. More
  • Digital dangers
    Students with special needs are among the most a at risk online but it’s also the area where guidance and examples of good practice are in short supply. Julie Nightingale highlights some of the good practice around for students with special needs and other ‘vulnerable’ groups while they are online. More
  • Don't panic!
    A death or accident can knock an institution sideways but a good disaster plan will enable you to control the immediate fallout and also avoid lasting damage to students, staff and/or reputation, says Richard Bird. More
  • Closing the gap
    From lifts to school to personal mentors and subsidised music lessons, Dorothy Lepkowska looks at the different approaches that schools are taking to maximise the effect of the Pupil Premium. More
  • Take your partners
    If you’re not already a sixth-form collaborator then maybe it’s time to start, says Stephan Jungnitz. More
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A death or accident can knock an institution sideways but a good disaster plan will enable you to control the immediate fallout and also avoid lasting damage to students, staff and/or reputation, says Richard Bird.


There are still schools and colleges where the working assumption is: “It will never happen here.” Yet major incidents at schools are a regular feature in the media and in the courts, whether it is an accident on a trip, a dangerous failure in a building, an intruder on site or even the death of a child or member of staff. Such events, with lives turned upside down, children scared and staff in turmoil, are a leader’s nightmare and they create different kinds of challenges.

First, when something catastrophic happens there is usually confusion, which can be exacerbated by ignorance: Those who are supposed to be in charge find that they do not actually know what happened and what is now going on. It can lead to a loss of confidence in management that goes beyond the usual staffroom grumbling. There is fear, and guilt and grief where lives have been lost or where crippling injuries have been suffered.

Then there is the need to manage the actions of staff, children and parents, while trying to cope with the media. These problems have always existed. What makes things worse now is the multiple means of communication and 24-hour news. A child can now instantly contact all his/her friends and parents and include photos. A news feed may have details of a disaster before the member of staff in charge of a trip has turned from managing the children to letting the school know what has happened. A head’s reputation may turn on 20 seconds of footage.

When the immediate problem is over, there is the struggle to get the school back to normal. But then there may be legal issues to face if the school is accused of causing the accident through negligence. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has waged a determined campaign to shoot down the sillier interpretations put on legislation and yes, it is true that, in some ways, the legal position has eased. The Compensation Act 2006 set in statute that a judge considering liability must consider whether finding for the complainant would inhibit an activity that would be generally beneficial.

But, in essence, the law of negligence has not greatly changed. A person is liable if s/he knew, or ought to have known, that a risk existed and failed to take steps to minimise or prevent that risk becoming reality.

All in all, you have the recipe for a witches’ brew that can create instability and reputational damage, even if the whole thing is not topped off by a lawsuit.

Create a plan

A plan is essential. Yes, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, but having a plan simplifies decisionmaking. Among the questions to ask in creating the plan are:

  • Has the school got a media policy?
  • Where would it locate an emergency command centre if the existing offices and computer centre were knocked out?
  • Does the school have a ready source of mobile classrooms?
  • Where will it go to for support if an incident occurs overseas?
  • Who holds crucial contact numbers?
  • Who will be in charge?
  • Who will talk to the press?
  • How will psychological issues be dealt with?
  • If there is a death, what does the school provide as an institution to enable grieving and recovery?

The particular nature of the plan will depend upon the particular nature of the school. It needs to contain procedures that save the energy of vital members of staff; give a sense of order in a situation that seems to undermine order; and clear away confusion as soon as possible.

At the minimum, it needs sections on roles and duties, organisations, sources of support and communications. Communications, for instance, will need to cover:

  • technical aspects including security of communications
  • how to communicate with staff
  • communication with parents, young people and the press

It needs to give guidance on priorities, setting out what must be done immediately, in the short term and what long-term issues will arise and need to be dealt with. It may also contain specific drills to deal with situations such as an armed intruder.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the operation once things start to go wrong is the working of the emergency team. It is hard to be sure in advance of the number and identities of the people who will be needed. “All hands to the pumps” is fine as a metaphor but when one looks at it in practice, it is not so simple. There are schools with so many layers of provision that there is a danger that they will get in one another’s way and people senior in the hierarchy may have to be elbowed out of the way so that people with specific skills can be involved directly in decision-making.

At the other extreme, there are schools where, unless there is specific planning, everything will depend on the head, regardless of the fact that s/he may not be on site. The head will be expected to organise everything and show leadership to staff at the same time as drafting a press statement, talking to the local radio station and explaining the situation to parents/guardians and governors.

Both of these extremes require forethought so that when and if something happens, decisions as to who does what do not have to be thought out from scratch.

Know the roles

Of course, if it can go wrong, it will, and incidents do not occur to order when everyone is readily available. But knowing what the roles are, and knowing how to substitute for absent colleagues, is crucial.

Once the plan is in place, there is a need to test it against possible scenarios and to see how it operates in practice. This can have good and bad effects.

For example, debriefing in one school after working through a scenario that took out significant parts of the offices revealed that the head of ICT could get the whole thing back up and running within ten minutes.

Another school, however, discovered on reflection that while youngsters going on adventure training had worked through scenarios that would give them confidence in dealing with emergencies or distressing situations, staff could be thrown by a relatively simple breakdown. (In other respects, that school was highly organised and very coherent and without a doubt would have managed a real emergency with confidence.)

Another school found that its absolutely excellent plan was so detailed that in an emergency it would not have been possible to work through it. Several had the plan only on the school’s intranet, which would be fine if the intranet was still working.

Emotional aftermath

Some thought needs to be given, too, to the emotional aftermath of a disaster or trauma.

Dealing with the death of a member of staff or a student, for example, can be highly complex and needs to be handled with care and sensitivity. The assemblies that follow such instances are vital in terms of not only finding the right words to be said but in allowing the school community to grieve and to start to rebuild.

There will also be practical matters to sort out, whether they are letters to parents/guardians and students or timetable arrangements. And there are also issues such as school representation at the funeral and whether there is to be any kind of memorial to the colleague or student.

It’s important not to underestimate the affect that such an emotionally draining event can have on leaders and the head in particular.

Altogether, the lesson is still: Stuff happens, but it can be dealt with if we are ready. So be prepared.

  • Richard Bird is ASCL’s legal specialist.

How to manage a major incident or emergency

Tuesday 20 May 2014
in London

Delivered by ASCL Professional Development, this practical course aims to assist school and college leaders to meet the challenges of a major incident by prudent planning and an organised response. The course will maximise participation and mutual learning and will include analysing what can go wrong; constructing a disaster management plan; dealing with media fallout; and recovering from a major incident.

Find out more/book your place: