Responding to a crisis in schools – practical tips for head teachers

14 February 2014 By Northern Lights

Responding to a crisis in schools – practical tips for head teachers image

Handling a crisis in schools – practical tips for head teachers and governors.  Plan ahead, be honest and transparent, communicate with everyone from staff to parents, media to community groups.  Get yourself some expert help – it can be a lonely place. 

We’ve been helping a growing number of schools to handle crises in the last year.  Left without the experienced support of their local authority’s press team, due to the changes in education structures, head teachers and chairs of governors can now find themselves on their own in a crisis.

The biggest concerns are handling media reactions and questions; the concerns of parents and the worry that, with social media, one word wrong could put them in the spotlight.  And of course, through all this, ensuring the safeguarding of children in their care while having to deal with external scrutiny.

Here are a few practical tips if you are a head and reading a negative Ofsted report, wondering what to say about a fraud that you have discovered or – the worst nightmare – you think a child or children have been at risk.

1.      Get an external view of the problem

Any of these scenarios are a lonely place for a head. Typically you are the first person to read the confidential report before it is published.  You are not allowed to share it yet you have to start planning as to how you handle it.


Find someone you can trust, get them to sign confidentiality letters or contracts (despite being told not to share reports etc, your advisers count as part of your legal/management team), and talk through your thoughts.  You can’t do this on your own.

2.      Trust your instincts

All the heads and chairs that we’ve worked with recently have had extremely good instincts about how to handle the crisis.  They don’t have experience in working with the media but that is usually a gap in knowing how the media works, timings, likely questions.  Most heads have a good understanding of the principles of communications – trust yourself.

3.      Plan, plan, plan

Once a report or incident is public, you are likely to be inundated with questions and concerns – not just the media, but also staff, parents, education bodies, funders, partners and so on.

Make the most of the space before anything goes public.  Agree a strategy with your adviser and draw up a communications plan to cover (this is not exhaustive and each school will have different audiences to consider)

  • Governors or trustees – communicate openly with them, get their support and look to them to help you in being ambassadors through the crisis
  • Media – prepare a statement that covers all options.  You can always take things out, don’t be adding in thoughts in a rush
  • Handling media questions (you do not have to talk to the media, a statement may be enough)
  • Parents – letters, social media, a meeting, personal meetings if their child was involved – keep them closely informed and involved throughout
  • Staff – who should be told just before it goes public to parents, and advised how to handle typical questions
  • Education bodies – ideally you want to get your local authority and politicians on board, ahead of an announcement to get their support and avoid political mischief-making
  • Communities – these may be covered through the media but you may have organisations who use your facilities or run activities in partnership.  Make sure they have personal communications
  • Social media channels – however much you hope to ‘control’ the message and process of getting it out, accept that as soon as a parent (or even teacher) hears the news, they may post something on Facebook or Twitter.  There are a few things to think about in this blog by Chris Syme

4.      Timing is critical

Because of social media, you have to assume that as each person hears your news, they may spread it.

Plan the order of your communications ruthlessly.  Think through who must know first (such as governors, then staff, then parents and so on) and set up a communications process for this all to happen within minutes or hours of each other – so you might have a staff meeting in progress while letters are being emailed (or texted) to parents.

Do think through how you will communicate with parents who cannot get to the school and those who are not on email or your normal school communication system.

Make sure you and others are available to handle calls or meet as requested.  Don’t stint on this time.

5.      Post on your website

These days, you have to accept that pretty much anything you send anyone is likely to appear on Twitter as a twitpic or Facebook written out in full.  So you might as well be transparent in what you do and post statements, letters to parents and other communications on your website.

6.      Use your lawyers

Clearly there is a raft of legislation behind any crisis.  Get your lawyers to check all communications and run your plans past them.  If you don’t have lawyers with this sort of experience, we are happy to recommend some with specialist knowledge of school crises.

7.      Be transparent and  honest

You have had a crisis, do NOT make it worse by trying to hide or lie about ANY aspect.  How many times have you heard of scandals where the cover-up was a bigger story than the original problem?

Be open and transparent.  Force yourself to check everything you have written and ask yourself ‘if I was a parent – and knowing what I personally know – would I think I’ve really told them everything they need or should know?’

And once the crisis is over, think through what you can learn from this and what should go in your crisis communications plan for another time.  You might want to look at the blog I wrote about how the Catholic Church handled – or didn’t –its crises around child protection.

If you have a crisis and are on your own, give us a call.  You will note that we are completely discreet, have a great deal of experience and can share the load with you.

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Written by Northern Lights

1 Comment

  • As a school governor this blog is extremely helpful, I find that most schools I have worked with are still of the old school mind of let’s hide the issue, it’s just not going to cut the mustard these days, and the key is plan and to be wise enough to know that gossip can cause more harm than good.

    Thanks for this Victoria, really helpful!

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