Leadership - Get ready for the worst shock of all

27th September 2013 at 01:00
The sudden death of a student or member of staff will leave everyone vulnerable, so have solid procedures in place

Schools are about developing lives and enhancing life chances. Yet, unfortunately, they sometimes also have to deal with situations where a life comes to an end. For school leaders, this can be a traumatic and challenging time.

The loss of a student's parent is not uncommon and schools tend to be ready for this, with established procedures in place to assist the child. The case of a student with a terminal illness is less common but, again, schools tend to have procedures in place to help. As a school leader, you have to ensure that you put these plans into action, no matter how affected you may be personally by the death.

What cannot be anticipated, and can present a profound challenge, is the unexpected death of a teacher or student. In my 15 years as a school leader, I faced this only once, when my deputy had a fatal heart attack.

When the death is of a staff member, your first job is to notify colleagues as soon as possible so they have a chance to digest the news before going to school the next day. This is vital, as delivering the news to the wider school body requires staff to be calm and in control.

I would advise against the automated texting services that some schools use to break the news. A personal approach may be time-consuming but it is essential. It is best managed through a series of short assemblies with smaller groups.

Once the news has been broken, it is important to offer counselling services to staff and students. In the instance I dealt with, we also closed the school on the day of the funeral to allow colleagues and a number of students to attend. This was greatly appreciated by all and was, I felt, the proper thing to do.

Dealing with the sudden death of a student is arguably even more of a challenge. I personally have never been in this situation but my successor recently was after a student fell from a roof. The way that he handled the incident is a model of how it should be done.

The student was hospitalised after the accident but the prognosis was bad. During this time the headteacher maintained close and supportive contact with the family. He ensured that students were warned to expect possible bad news, kept staff informed and prepared press releases (the incident was already making headlines in the local news). It is best to have a prepared written statement for the press that, if possible, has been agreed with the family. An ad hoc approach risks misreporting, which can hurt those already in shock.

When the death was confirmed, my successor broke the news to the student's friends in small groups. Their peers were notified soon after. Parents were informed by letter that day. He also ensured that counselling was available to all who requested it and enabled those who wished to attend the funeral to do so.

One of the most significant things he did was to make rooms in the school available for the wake after the funeral. This, I believe, brought comfort to the family and allowed the school body to express its support for them directly. He also realised that the students required ongoing support, particularly the brother of the student who died and the friend who witnessed the accident.

Although each death is unique, this school leader's actions point to some useful general rules. It is likely to be an emotionally difficult time for the headteachers themselves and it can be helpful to have set rules to follow.

Thankfully, these events do not occur often. However, leaders need to know that their actions on these occasions have a direct effect on people when they are at their most vulnerable.

The writer is a recently retired headmaster of a large secondary school in the South of England

In short

Schools tend to have procedures in place for when a student's parent dies or a child is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

However, the sudden death of a teacher or student is often not planned for since it is, thankfully, rare.

When it does occur, it is crucial that leaders liaise with the family, keep all members of the school informed and ensure that support is in place for all to access.

It is important to recognise that they, too, are likely to be deeply affected by the experience and to ensure that they also have support.

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