Supporting schools in time of crisis


This week has been one of the most challenging of my career. I can’t go into the actual incidents but there have been two separate and completely unconnected instances of schools in East Lothian having to deal with crisis situations.

The incidents have involved significant liaison with other agencies from local to national level, whilst parents, staff, children and the local communities have been very distressed.  It is generally accepted practice that senior managers such as myself remain at some distance from the actual location of a crisis and maintain a “strategic” role leaving those on the ground to deal with operational issues.

Yet what I learned this week was that there is much to be said for actually being present at the location to support the local staff and to co-ordinate the wider response to the crisis from the site.  On both Monday and Thursday I spent the entire day at the site of the crisis working with the staff, and liaising with other agencies.  In both cases I did not adopt a high presence around the school and tended to remain in the Headteacher’s office leaving the senior management team to work with staff, pupils and generally be around the school.

So what what were the benefits of this approach?

1. If I had not been there the management team would have had to constantly be on the phone to update me and to receive information – this would have limited their ability to deal with issues on the ground, which, if left unattended, had the potential to build into critical situations which might have become unmanageable.

2. I was able to liaise with national agencies and take any calls to the school from individuals who required further information, thereby freeing up the management team – by being on site I could ensure that such information was completely up-to-date.

3. In time of crisis there is a tendency for some people to want answers to questions which local management can’t give  – the fact that I was able to go out and speak to parents and members of the community as Director of Education and Children’s Services helped to resolve some of these concerns.

4. Because I was not operationally involved I was able to handle information as it came into the school and could synthesise and pass it on as necessary.

5. There were occasions that we needed to release resources in a very short space of time – the fact that I could just pick up the phone and speak to my equivalents in other organisations allowed that to happen in real time.

6. In times of school crisis the school management are having to deal with the practical demands of the situation, whilst having to deal with the psychological and emotional pressures of helping people with whom they have very close working relationships.  By being slightly removed from the emotional bonds someone in my position could provide direct support to the managers.

7. By being present on site it demonstrates, in an observable manner, our commitment to the situation and to our staff.  The rationale for remaining in the office is understandable but I don’t think it can ever make up for presence on the ground.

I’m sure there will be times when this strategy is not the most appropriate but from my experience this week it has much to commend it.

As the title of this site points out – this is a “Learning Log” – and these have been learning experiences.