Skip to main content

Prepared for the worst?

Schools will always generate a steady stream of crises, ranging from outbreaks of food poisoning to teachers who mix the school fund up with their own money, whichever local authority they belong to.

As most of these at some point arrive on somebody's desk at county hall, it follows that officers build up a fund of "seen it all before" experience.

Sometimes, though, as Paul Davies, area education officer for West Devon, discovered on March 22 last year, the assumption that the authority will always know what to do is put very severely to the test.

That was the day when a party of eight sixth-formers from Southway School, together with a teacher, and two instructors found themselves in difficulty on a canoeing trip from Lyme Regis Adventure Centre in Dorset. Tragically, after a helicopter rescue and an agonising wait, it turned out that four of the pupils had died.

Paul Davies went to the school as soon as the news broke, and continued working with a team from the authority to help to manage the unfolding events for some time afterwards.

It was the experience of coping with the avalanche of conflicting demands that convinced him that schools should be prepared to think the unthinkable.

"I would strongly urge all schools to consider how they would react to a similar situation even if it is only an agenda item on one senior management team meeting."

The starting point, he suggests, is "to define a crisis" - to decide what circumstances would call a contingency plan into play. It is not difficult, unfortunately, for a head to think of examples, one or more of which will almost certainly have happened to a school in the neighbourhood - the death of a pupil or teacher; major vandalism or fire; a violent assault on school premises; a traffic accident to a school party.

The next planning priority is to select senior teachers, senior admin staff, governors and local authority officers to make up the crisis team. After that comes allocation of roles - who will come immediately to school and who will go to the site of the incident? Who will look after the media? Who will be interviewed by the media (not the same thing)? Who will work with parents? And, of course, who will keep the school running smoothly?

Much of this role allocation has the purpose of putting a protective shield around the head. He or she has to be freed to deal carefully and unhurriedly with those parents and pupils directly affected.

Another vital ingredient, says Paul Davies, is "Knowing the network" - being ready with lists of necessary phone numbers, and having answers to such questions as "how do you get into the school building and use the phone system out of hours?" Another idea is to track a notional "incident" as a paper or discussion exercise. And it is always necessary to keep one step ahead by reviewing policies on such areas as outdoor education, school transport and security against intruders.

All of these issues, and more, were at work in the aftermath of the Lyme Bay tragedy. Right from the start, for example, there was pressure on communications.

"The main school number was jammed and we had to use the caretaker's phone and a fax machine in the information technology suite. It is important to stop rumours spreading by ensuring that facts are made available as quickly as possible."

As Paul Davies and his colleagues quickly discovered, the media is at the front of the queue when it comes to demanding information. He emphasises that whatever your feelings about journalists and their methods, you cannot ignore them.

"The media will not go away, especially when children are involved." This means you have to be ready to have a press officer in charge, and to be equipped to give statements and regular briefings. Be aware of the journalists' deadlines. It's important to keep them on your side. A media centre away from the disaster allows regular briefing for all of them at the same time.

The message to the media, he advises, has to be consistent, "and, naturally, be always aware of the the possible impact on the reputation of the school. "

Planning for disaster is, admits Paul Davies, "a sombre topic". When he spoke to the Boarding Schools Association on the subject earlier this year, he expressed the fervent hope "that everything I say to you is of no use to you whatsoever!" There are levels of trouble, however, and for every tragic incident there are many which are merely irritating and expensive and threaten the continuity of learning.

When something happens, the school that has braced itself to make a plan should at least be able to avoid adding unnecessarily to the pain and confusion.

Paul Davies commends two publications to schools. There is Wise Before the Event by William Yule and Anne Gold (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Pounds 5.50 plus Pounds 1.50 postage, from Turnaround Distribution, 27 Horsell Road, London N5 1XL; and Devon's own recently published document, A Devon Approach to Safety In Outdoor Education 1994 (Pounds 7 from Devon Learning Resources, 21 Old Mill Road, Torquay, T2 6AU.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you