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Emerging themes in education crisis comms

September saw the latest instalment of the Alder Intelligence webinar series and the first of our termly education webinars, ‘Protecting your reputation: trends, best practice and lessons from recent cases’.

Having advised on some of the most significant education news stories over the last year, Managing Director Tim Toulmin and Specialist Education Partner Sue Bishop highlighted the changing climate for schools on a broader scale and the key lessons from handling individual cases.

General election and culture wars

One of the key trends on a sector level is the increased media scrutiny facing independent schools as a consequence of the looming general election. The debate about VAT along with culture war issues, particularly on trans matters, means schools will be a key election battleground.

As open days approach it will be important for schools to have prepared lines to take when parents enquire about these tricky topics. Schools should have a clear understanding of how quickly a throw-away comment or ill-advised statement can lead to a media story. To have consistent messaging across the board it can be helpful for schools to prepare a Q&A document to be shared with key staff so there is clarity and consistency of communication.  NB: Our retained clients will shortly receive a briefing note on how to keep their schools out of culture war stories. 

Health and safety

Though usually rare in a school setting, there has been a marked increase in health and safety issues such as accidents and assaults, sometimes involving fatalities.  An up-to-date crisis communication plan will help keep schools on the front foot at such times, but one of the key areas of the learning from cases so far this year is that schools need to retain discipline about who is in their crisis response team.

People in the community want to be helpful at such times and will volunteer their services, particularly if they have relevant experience in areas such as communications, the law or student welfare. 

However, large teams can impede a speedy crisis response and school leaders should be comfortable in turning down offers of support and ensuring the response team remains small and nimble.  This will help with good decision-making during difficult times.   

Changes in behaviour

In the aftermath of Covid there has been a noticeable shift in individuals’ behaviour, whether they are parents, pupils or staff. Among students this includes peer-on-peer bullying and some unusual criminal activity, while parents have less patience for schools trying to resolve matters and have become more assertive about threatening to ‘go to the press’.

Staff suspensions or dismissals are also on the rise for a variety of reasons, leaving schools with the difficult task of communicating an absence without being able to explain it. 

While much of this behaviour is potentially newsworthy because it is novel, it is important to remember that they are difficult stories to publish because of the high degrees of confidentiality and privacy that apply.  However, speculation within the community will often arise and needs to be managed carefully. 

Journalists’ behaviour

As ever, schools need to be aware of the tactics that journalists use to obtain stories.  There have been instances of governors being doorstepped and journalists using ‘fishing expeditions’ – sending speculative emails to numerous schools at once – to try to find interesting news angles.   Specialist media training can be helpful in keeping up to date with how stories are gathered. 

Lessons learned from non-recent cases of abuse

Following the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) schools generally do not seem to have come to a settled view about how to deal with non-recent cases of abuse.  Some schools are pioneering a more open approach while others are regrettably still stuck in the old ways of issuing ‘non-apology apologies’ and generally being dismissive of those seeking help.   A victim-first approach is something Alder always advises.

The Boarding School’s Association (BSA) and Safeguarding and Child Protection Association (SACPA) have done important work in this area since IICSA. If you would like to obtain a paper on supporting victims of non-recent abuse, you can contact Robin Fletcher, CEO of the BSA at [email protected].

Final thoughts

If you would like a recording of the webinar, or a discreet, no obligation discussion about any of the issues mentioned in this please call 020 7692 5675 or email [email protected].

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