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School Bursars’ Concerns: Key takeaways from the ISBA Conference 

Alder attended the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA) annual conference last week, when Managing Director, Tim Toulmin, and COO, Susan Smith, presented a session on ‘communicating difficult messages to stakeholders’.  Before the conference, we polled 51 attendees, asking them about their primary communication concerns and what measures they had in place to help them prepare.   

In this blog we explore these concerns and highlight some guiding principles to help in-house teams navigate the challenges.  

Financial uncertainty and communications 

72% of bursars were concerned about financial uncertainties relating to fees and pension schemes – unsurprisingly, given the current economic and political context.  

When communicating with stakeholders about financial matters, be clear about the rationale behind decisions, acknowledging both costs and their impact on individuals, and reassure stakeholders by providing a timeline for updates and sticking to the plan. Prepare for potential leaks by creating a bespoke plan. 

If announcing initiatives such as mergers or going co-ed then bear in mind that premature announcements can cause unnecessary alarm.  The first step is to develop a comprehensive change plan and then let the communications follow. 

Social media and online reputation 

A 2016 study found 64% of people trust online search engines the most when conducting research on a school, so it is no surprise that online reputation is also a pressing concern. Poor Google and Wikipedia results put off people from making even an initial enquiry.  

Specialist companies will minimise poor results and boost positive ones both in English and other languages – contact us if you would like an introduction – and when dealing with a crisis online bear in mind there is a time to be reactive and a time to not engage.  Get discussions offline where possible and remember there are remedies through online reporting mechanisms, civil procedures and, occasionally, the police in certain situations.   

Victim events 

40% of bursars are concerned about handling communications when there is a victim involved, whether that be following an injury or fatality or an allegation of abuse.  

We advise schools to remember there is a ‘hierarchy of needs’ in such circumstances.  Focus on the most important people – victims and their relatives – and work out from there.  Schools don’t need to communicate with everyone, and others such as the emergency services often take the lead in any case.  

People changes and sudden absences  

30% of bursars were concerned about communicating staff absences, whether that was the result of routine changes at the top or disciplinary or police investigations.  

Routine leadership departures can seem sudden, but timely and transparent communication will help while the school should bear in mind the need to highlight the continuity in values to stakeholders.  When sudden absences are for a legal or disciplinary reason then discretion is essential.  Overcommunication is fraught with danger and information should be shared on a need-to-know basis only. 

Steps to prepare  

Our survey showed schools had taken a range of steps to prepare but there was still some room for progress: while 70% of schools had a crisis communications manual in place, 11% did not have any crisis measures in place at all.  

If you are a school that needs to prepare ahead or is worried about any of the concerns mentioned, contact our specialist education team at [email protected] or call us on 020 7692 5675. 

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