Crisis planning in a crisis? How to make it work

When the pandemic happened, all plans had to be revised. But what are the lessons learned? One leader shares his experience

Dan Rushworth

Map on a table with a notebook, pen and camera, improving map skills

The problem with crisis planning is that the details you need to know to effectively plan are usually only revealed to you when the crisis is already in full swing.

This meeting of theoretical and practical is often the reason behind dropping or rewriting existing plans.

After all, who had plans in place which could have helped for the events of the last 18 months?

But through all this upheaval, schools have adapted again and again. So what lessons can we learn from this to help us the next time a crisis – whatever it may be – arises.

Communication: little and often

In a crisis, language matters. Even when everything else is out of your control, one thing you still have power over is what you say.

For example, the pandemic understandably created panic. To counteract this, we began with a very clear message for our staff, parents and students: that this was about managing change, not crisis.

We acknowledged anxiety but conveyed confidence that we could embrace this challenge, and reassured people that we already had many tools at our disposal. There is a tendency in a crisis for the mind to wipe clean everything it already knows. However, we knew we had the collective power to deal with whatever came our way and it was important to say this.

Throughout a crisis, it also is important to keep channels of communication open.

After we explained our strategic response to the pandemic to all our stakeholders, we made sure we kept up regular communications. This happened even when we had nothing new to say, because we knew that parents and staff appreciated regular updates through our internal channels and our weekly newsletter all the same. 

Prioritise people

We identified at the start of the crisis that a clever gizmo or gadget was not going to decide whether we sank or swam when it came to dealing with fallout from the pandemic. We reasserted that our people were our biggest asset, even as we mastered new technologies.

We therefore knew that we needed to prioritise training, to make sure that people felt confident in adapting to the new ways of working that came with remote learning.

For some, this was a steep learning curve, but we were careful not to make it seem daunting. In order to ensure morale wasn't dampened, we made teachers’ home working environment comfortable, a practical step which made a difference to the working day of our staff.

We appointed a digital champion, as a point person for anyone struggling with IT, whom they could turn to at any hour of the day. We also found training videos were really powerful. It is so easy, especially at such an anxious time, for people to forget the basics, so these videos covered the issues most likely to come up and were a great trouble-shooting tool.

Asking for flexibility? Then give flexibility

Thirdly, we appealed for flexibility as the situation evolved. This is often the biggest challenge for a leadership team, because it can be demoralising and draining when things do not go to plan.

A prime example is our re-opening timetable for September, which was based on the principle of staff moving around the school more and students less, to protect bubbles. It soon became clear that staff were exhausted by relocating themselves and resources multiple times a day; we re-evaluated and, taking into account the hygiene standards we had managed to keep, by the October half term we were confident we could ask pupils to move classrooms for different lessons again.

It was a difficult decision to rip up a timetable that had been painstakingly put together, turning everything on its head once again, but it was the right thing to do and we enlisted support by explaining why the original decision was taken and why we needed to change tack.

Reflect and learn

In terms of lessons learned, we have seen the focus on leadership training pay dividends, but we have also realised training is just one aspect. Encouraging leadership as a mindset is how you begin to see it demonstrated at all levels.

In terms of how we manage future change, we are looking at how we can make even more of our outward-facing platforms. We want to embrace technology to its fullest, and streamline our processes where we can, for example by not always requiring face-to-face meetings with parents.

The language we use is as important in this context as it has been throughout the pandemic; we are making a conscious decision not to talk about ‘catch-up’ but ‘consolidation’ and ‘skill development’.

Change can be de-stabilising and we have felt this as keenly as the next school, but it is also, ultimately, an opportunity to improve.

We are determined that everything we do now will not only help us navigate these murky waters but steer the ship for many years to come.

Daniel Rushworth is vice-principal at Chipping Campden School

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Dan Rushworth

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