Don't wait for tragedy to strike

Preparing for the worst can provide useful lessons for the day-to-day running of your school

In response to such tragedies as Lyme Bay and Dunblane and following the good advice of the Gulbenkian Foundation's book Wise Before the Event, our school has spent some time preparing its own school disaster plan. What we have found over two years of work is that we have become much more conscious of the possibility of preventing disasters and of devising prudent, precautionary measures.

The deputy head of a school that had suffered an arson attack advised us that one of the most important things we could do was to ensure that the administrative computer system was backed up and a record stored securely every day. Which led us to ask whether departmental worksheets or other resources were recoverable.

Some departments did have masters and files on discs that were stored safely but all departments are now advised to ensure they could be up and running very quickly without the need for worksheets and the like to be completely reinvented and typed from scratch should disaster strike. The week before this idea was taken to the heads of department meeting, I had trudged through a flooded science block seeing master files of worksheets dripping wet.

Advice from the police was quite simple. The most important thing that we could do was to ask all staff to challenge everybody on campus without a visitor's pass. But wouldn't colleagues be reluctant to challenge people such as student teachers who they did not know? And would all staff recognise colleagues brought in to cover for maternity leaves? The obvious step, the police suggested, was to issue everyone with an identity badge. This we are now doing.

For visits and trips, procedures are fully documented and organisers are asked to fill in a form, declaring that they have checked pupils' medical records and that they have read the schools' visits procedures. These require organisers of all trips out of school hours to take pupils' telephone numbers with them. Organisers of evening and overnight trips are provided with a 14-point instruction sheet on what to do in the event of an emergency. Having once found it impossible to think of the way to the local hospital when my young son had been scalded, I know that to think straight in the face of disaster is impossible. The emergency sheet helps. It includes the telephone numbers of the headteacher and two deputies.

Extended trips require a member of the senior staff team to be on call and they keep the itinerary and all contact telephone numbers. For trips abroad the person on call has to have an up-to-date passport. For trips in the UK, one head of department thought of the very simple idea of carrying a portable telephone. The PE department followed suit and now carries an airway and chemical ice-pack in its first aid kit. (For games fixtures, it deposits team-lists and the estimated time of return in a departmental log in the office every day.

Forms for parents ensure that we know all relevant medical information for each child; where there are serious problems, such as epilepsy, then we tactfully inform the parent that much as we would like to take the pupil we would not want to place such a burden on staff.

Where parents refuse permission for a blood transfusion for pupils going on extended trips, we ask them to furnish us with a letter saying so, which we could give to a doctor or hospital if needed. One form asks the parents "Is there any other information of which we should be aware?" We want to be sure we have all information that might be relevant and to protect ourselves if the parent has not provided us with it.

We also ask parents to sign an agreement that includes their consent in extreme cases to have pupils sent home accompanied by a member of staff at the parents' expense.

Most recently we have turned to other precautionary measures. Every September, heads of year must tell teachers of pupils with severe medical problems and of pupils who could be deemed to present a physical danger to staff. The deputy will remind colleagues that they should have in their mark books full details of pupils with health problems and that they should ensure that they know how do deal with them. Are all colleagues teaching Emily Smith sure that they know what to do in case of an epileptic seizure? The stabbing of the London headteacher Philip Lawrence has led us to require senior staff called out on an "emergency" to be accompanied always.

We have also devised measures to deal with abusive, aggressive parents. Abuse over the telephone will now be met with a polite warning and if that does not stop the tirade, staff are required to say that they are now going to put the phone down and that a member of the senior staff team will contact the caller as soon as possible.

Aggressive or abusive parents can only be seen with a senior member of staff. Out of school hours, all such meetings must take place in the main school block and not in outlying wings, mobile classrooms or offices. The school is investigating the possibility of a new telephone system that can issue an alarm signal from the offices to reception and that can record conversations. Reception already has two alarms: one to the head and to the school administrator whose offices adjoin reception; the other direct to the police.

Our work would lead us to suggest that disaster planning is of value in itself. Much more valuable is using such planning to devise wise, sensible and prudent, precautionary and preventive measures.

* David Kibble is deputy head of Huntington School, York.

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