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Schools crisis management when reputational challenges

There is no area that is more complex than supporting a school with its communications when things turn sour. With schools there is always more scrutiny and forensic analysis will often follow.

Parents trust schools with their children’s development for the best part of a decade and a half. Pupils are at a crucial stage of their development and experiences at school shape their lives. This is when they are at their most vulnerable and for this reason there is an innate trust between parents and teachers; and when this is broken the potential for damage is immense.

Perhaps the area with the largest potential damage both to the child and the school are issues surrounding safeguarding. We have all seen the headlines, such as: "Ex-teacher admits boarding school sex abuse", "Boy charged over school knife incident" and "School in turmoil from staffing crisis".

Actually, those three headlines are all from separate situations which occurred within two weeks of writing this article. All are prominent with a simple Google search and the impact for the school is huge whist the long term repercussions are far reaching. If this wasn’t bad enough, it doesn’t take into account the fact that schools, through their ordinary and well intentioned day to day work, arguably expose themselves to a higher level of risk.

Even the most mundane and well intentioned day to day business of operating a school can be fraught with risks. A visit to a museum, a residential camping trip, an appearance at the school by a special guest visitor: all are ordinary and mostly successful activities undertaken by schools up and down the country that, while generally trouble-free, carry plenty of potential for mishap and mischief.

Schools are also uniquely positioned at the heart of their community. When a school is affected local politicians and community leaders can come out and support you – or come out against you. In short, staying on top of the potential risks, planning for all circumstances and ensuring you are communicating with the people who matter is no easy job.

How to approach a crisis

How can a school manage when confronted with these challenges – when its reputation and relations with the community, carefully nurtured and sustained over a number of years, are at risk?

To some extent, the easy answer is that there is no easy answer! Crises come in all shapes and sizes. The correct response will depend on many variables – the history, the rarity (or otherwise) of the occurrence, the school’s relationship with the community and so on.

Often there is no substitute for expert advice, tailored to the requirements of the difficult task at hand. Nevertheless, although there is no one size fits all approach, there are some general principles.

After a major incident, shutting down the story is often beyond the reach of even the most talented PR professional. The focus must be on doing things in the right way, even if that means media scrutiny on the school increases in the short term.

Firstly, the importance of dealing with a negative scenario proactively, rather than waiting until negative comment has built to an intolerable level, is crucial. Don’t underestimate the speed with which a crisis situation can build. It is a PR adage that "news travels fast" and this is particularly true for schools. Incidents are often witnessed or talked about by pupils so any response must be timely. This is only amplified by the speed with which news can travel on social media.

Crisis aware mentality

Schools need to develop a crisis-aware mentality. Staff should be encouraged to be the "eyes and ears" on the ground who can alert senior management to a problem, however small it may seem at the time, before it becomes a major issue. A communications plan should be in place as a structured approach can be the difference between looking like a well-run school and a shambles.

There are three key aspects that a communication plan should include, and depending on the scale of the incident one or all of the following aspects will be necessary:

  • A communication to parents giving them information of an incident before it becomes general knowledge and how that letter will be distributed.
  • A media contact on behalf of the school who can take pressure off decision makers and buy time with the media.
  • A holding statement for mainstream and social media.

A school’s primary focus is its pupils, followed closely by its parents and teachers. Once safety is ensured, the small things will make a big difference as to whether the school emerges from an incident with its reputation intact, or mortally diminished.

Parents need to be informed quickly and effectively without causing alarm. There is nothing worse than parents finding out about an incident at their children’s school through local or social media. But we should also be clear that once parents have been informed, we can assume that the local media is also aware. Therefore all communications need to be crafted in a way that will not be misinterpreted.

Many schools have well developed systems to text all parents. Whilst this may be efficient, it is not always appropriate. Sometimes more details are necessary and letters or website posts are more effective and sensitive.

Informing through a holding statement

The next stage is often to inform the media through a holding statement. This needs to be carefully worded and should address key issues whilst not committing the school to a course of action that they will later regret or change. Strict policies need to be in place for social media. Either the school is responding to all posts or only issuing official statements. Consistency is key to looking credible to those who are paying attention to the school’s every move.

In addition, creating an informal dialogue with key media - perhaps by providing off the record updates and letting them know when they are expecting official statements - will ensure the school is given that bit of leeway which can make a real difference to perceptions.

Making up lost ground

There is no quick fix, but it is important to keep incidents in context and rebuild trust. The school must take decisive steps and ensure that these steps are well communicated. There is little point turning round to parents or media six months after the event and saying a new policy has been written if there have been serious safeguarding breaches. It will never be enough.

Even if a new policy is all that is required, parents (and inevitably the media) should be informed every step of the way. Conducting reviews, publicising conclusions and being transparent in talking to parents, teachers and the public can create the basis for a recovery.

One of the most effective tactics is to get out on the front foot and publish and publicise internal reports – setting out the story before the media has a chance to create an alternative narrative.

By being proactive and ensuring that your audiences, including journalists, receive information from you rather than from other sources, you can shape the narrative and frame the terms of the story. This can be particularly effective if there are rumours of financial irregularities. Where pupils have injured themselves, precautions need to be taken for the future.

PR alone is not the answer

Although this might sound counter-intuitive coming from a PR consultant, schools would do well to remember that PR alone is not the answer. Good comms needs to start with policy and action – not empty words. The school in question instituted a series of programmes aimed at its pupils to encourage tolerance. That’s all well and good but where the problem is with staff, targeting pupils was seen as a PR stunt and did not win any friends.

Playing the long game is a school’s best hope. There is no quick fix when one is dealing with reputation management and recovery. Following a crisis, there should always be review of what went well, what could have gone better, and what can be changed to minimise the chances of anything similar occurring.

The focus should then shift to restoring and repairing a damaged reputation. A mixture of a drip feed of positive stories can leave a lasting impression and reputations repaired. The ultimate aim is to have the community talking about positives rather than the crisis and allowing teachers to focus once again on what they do best – giving young people the best possible start in life and brightest possible future.

The PR Office's Aaron Bass - there is no quick fix when a school is dealing with reputation management and recovery.
"Perhaps the area with the largest potential damage both to the child and the school are issues surrounding safeguarding."
"...the importance of dealing with a negative scenario proactively, rather than waiting until negative comment has built to an intolerable level, is crucial."

How your school board should be safeguarding pupils

The Charity Commission published the findings of its report in late 2015 into the safeguarding cases at St. Paul’s School which hit the national press. The publication of the Commission’s report (which can be found on the Commission’s website) was the culmination of its investigations into the school’s governance, which began in May 2014.

Sexual abuse allegations

The Commission’s enquiry followed and ran alongside the Metropolitan Police’s investigations into allegations of recent and historic sexual abuse at the school and the arrest of a schoolteacher on charges of the possession of indecent images of young people. The inquiry involved close liaison between the Commission, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) and the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) in respect of each of their investigations and findings.

The Commission’s investigation was limited in scope to the conduct of the school’s governors in handling the various safeguarding issues from a charity law perspective. Specifically, the Commission investigated whether the governors had acted in the best interests of the school and ensured the school had, and complied with, appropriate procedures and policies to protect its pupils.

Whilst this article will focus on the Commission’s findings, the full report should be required reading for governors and senior management teams (SMTs) as it contains a helpful summary of how the Commission conducts its inquiries and what it expects from schools in the course of the investigation.

Good behaviour complimented

It is worth saying first that the Commission’s report at various points pays compliments to the school’s safeguarding policies and procedures:

  • There was an extensive range of safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • The senior management team undertook periodic reviews of policies.
  • The governors instructed professional advisers to review the schools policies at appropriate times.
  • An independent review was commissioned by the governors to assist the school in implementing best practice.
  • Safeguarding training was scheduled for the governors.
  • There was good safeguarding training for staff.
  • A safeguarding reporting “prompt card” had been issued to all staff.

Room for improvement

Given the good behaviour of the governors set out above, many schools may find it surprising (and a little intimidating) that the Commission had anything left to criticise.

The areas the Commission highlights as breaches or room for improvement provide lessons for all schools, not just for those in the independent sector. The good news is that for most schools learning the lessons of the report will mean minor touches to the tiller. However, the warnings should be heeded as the Commission is increasingly seeing its regulatory role as that of policeman and not friend of the sector.

We have framed the most important lessons from the report as four questions for your board to consider:

HOW DO WE KNOW OUR REVIEW OF SAFEGUARDING POLICY AND PRACTICE IS EFFECTIVE? The Commission’s report suggests an annual review of safeguarding, in itself, is not enough. The St Paul’s governors were criticised for not having a framework by which they could determine whether their safeguarding review was effective and, in checking the staff’s compliance with the policy, were relying too heavily on verbal reports from the SMT without corroborating them.

In their oversight of safeguarding practice and policy, the board was advised by the Commission to draw up an audit and reporting template to agree the terms of reference, scope and methodology of their safeguarding reviews and ensure independent corroboration of SMT briefings by the inspection of a sample of records of serious cases, or by seeking feedback from the LADO or other agencies.

IS IT CLEAR WHO DOES WHAT? In reviewing who conducted the oversight of safeguarding duties, the Commission found a disparity between the school’s safeguarding policy and practice. In theory, oversight was the responsibility of the designated safeguarding governor. In practice, the designated safeguarding governor oversaw safeguarding policy and practice together with the chair of governors but the division of their duties was not formally defined.

The Commission’s report stated that this lack of clarity exposed the governors to the risk of mismanagement – a liability the governors would be collectively liable for.

The Commission also cited the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s report which drew attention to confusion amongst the staff as to the reporting lines for concerns about pupils and staff.

ARE WE ADEQUATELY REPORTING SERIOUS INCIDENTS TO THE CHARITY COMMISSION AND THE LOCAL AUTHORITY DESIGNATED OFFICER? The Commission’s guidance states that it should be notified as soon as a school becomes aware of a serious incident. The legal responsibility for reporting serious incidents rests with the governors even if they are delegating that work to the SMT.

St Paul’s was criticised in the report for failing to promptly report various serious safeguarding incidents and for also failing to declare the incidents in its annual return. It is an offence under the Charities Act 2011 to knowingly or recklessly provide false or misleading information to the Commission. If governors delegate this work to others they should be aware that they still remain legally responsible.

The Commission also criticised the fragmented relationship the school had with the LADO that had inhibited the proper reporting of issues at the appropriate time. Evidence was given that the school was aware of the breakdown but the issue was not formally recorded and no action was taken to improve relations.

The Commission has published guidance for trustees and governors covering the reporting of serious incidents which should be on the reading list for any board unaware of its duty to report serious incidents. The local authority should also be contacted to ensure that your school’s safeguarding arrangements take into account local procedures and practice as well as the statutory framework and guidance.

DO WE ANALYSE TRENDS AS WELL AS ISOLATED SAFEGUARDING INCIDENTS? The Commission advised that the St Paul’s board and senior management team were inhibited from making informed decisions regarding safeguarding because incidents were only ever considered incidents in isolation and not in the context of other incidents and wider trends. Your board should agree how the reporting of serious incidents is presented to the board to provide more detailed management information and allow better decision making.

Must try harder

Given the legal and reputational risks that safeguarding issues present, not to mention the risk of harm pupils may be exposed to, the Commission’s report provides another timely opportunity for school governors to ensure that their policies and practice are reviewed and, where necessary, strengthened.

Barlow Robbins' Gordon Reid and Kenji Batchelor - your board should agree how the reporting of serious incidents is presented to the board to provide more detailed management information and allow better decision making.
"The Commission's report suggests an annual review of safeguarding, in itself, is not enough."
"The Commission...cited the Independent Schools Inspectorate's report which drew attention to confusion amongst the staff as to the reporting lines for concerns about pupils and staff."

The management challenges of running an independent school

Independent schools today - forced to jump through hoops to manage the restrictions and expectations of the education, charity and commercial sectors in which they operate - are increasingly adopting a corporate management structure that replaces the traditional "head and bursar" arrangement.

Private schools of any significant size are having to restructure to meet the business challenges they face, whilst striving to preserve the school environment and culture.

To add to this they must meet the legislative requirements relating to education such as child protection and boarding provision, and work within guidelines laid down by charity regulators including the Charity Commission or, in Scotland, OSCR.

In order to survive, like any business, these schools need to have their income exceed expenditure by a sufficient amount. And, as demands on schools increase from both children and their parents, a key challenge is to fund the necessary capital expenditure required to maintain the teaching and accommodation facilities in an increasingly competitive environment.

The fundamental challenge facing any independent school’s management is to ensure that the school roll is as close to the set budget as possible. The impact of a shortfall in pupil numbers can be financially severe given its direct impact on the school’s surplus.

Fiercely competitive

Attracting new pupils both from home and overseas is fiercely competitive and it can be particularly rewarding when children join the school at an early stage and, assuming all goes well, the annual fee income is secure for six years.

The competitive nature of the market, however, creates its own challenges and schools need to ensure that discounts by way of bursaries are not overdone. This is exacerbated by the requirements of the charity regulators who wish to ensure that schools give sufficient means tested bursaries required to meet the public benefit test. This creates a huge financial challenge for schools when the impact can lead to increased standard fees for full paying students.

Other challenges relating to income arise from schools trying to maximise use of their assets. This, too, can be complicated by the need to demonstrate public benefit. It also creates VAT and tax complications, which will often involve the use of a trading subsidiary company to alleviate these issues, leading to further financial management and governance hurdles.

While some schools may have a substantial endowment to help fund capital improvements, others may not be so fortunate. Fundraising programmes usually require the appointment of external fundraisers, or the recruitment of a dedicated independent internal resource, and finding the right people is no easy task.

Old buildings

Many private schools have old buildings that need expensive maintenance or refurbishment. There are now even examples in the sector of innovative bank lending schemes to meet these costs which are so essential, to not only maintain, but to improve the standard of the school’s estate.

Though parents are obvious candidates for fundraising campaigns, they are already contributing significant sums through school fees. Many may be unable or unwilling to commit additional money to projects, some of which will not be completed before their own children graduate. Fundraising, therefore, needs to target wealthy alumni, who mostly attribute their success, at least partially, to their education, as well as suitable local trusts where reasonably substantial donations may be available.

Salaries of course remain the most expensive cost for independent schools. Usually representing around two thirds of total costs, the salary burden can vary based on the quality of teacher hired by the school. In some cases, unfortunate surprises have arisen over recent years relating to deficit funding of defined benefit schemes for non-teaching staff.

Other challenges relating to staff can also include policies on fee remission for the children of teachers. This can be a huge benefit in the school’s quest to attract the best teaching staff; but it can again put pressure on the achievement of the fee income target.

Employer compliance

The employer compliance area can also be a minefield. Ensuring that staff accommodation and associated benefits are dealt with correctly from an HMRC perspective is a tedious, but essential, process. Additionally, employment status issues can arise with part time or freelance teachers who are brought in to help out in specialist areas.

Under a more business-like structure, the head will indubitably remain in charge of educational matters, but much more will be expected of them in terms of acting as a CEO. They are heavily involved in the marketing of the school, both in terms of new pupil recruitment and in dealing with existing parents.

For non-educational functions, there will now often be a chief operating officer who will work with estates, finance, HR and marketing teams to oversee their effectiveness. HR has become a very complex area and, in an independent school, just like any other business, extreme care must be taken not to fall foul of employment legislation.

Collaboration is also a growing feature within the management of independent schools. Collaboration and the provision of assistance to state schools, both primary and secondary, can be helpful in assisting to demonstrate public benefit. In the senior years, collaboration with universities, colleges and industry can provide pupils with much needed exposure to tertiary education and work experience.

Risk management

The profile of risk management has grown substantially in recent years where the “common sense” approach of yesteryear has been replaced by much more formal processes of risk registers, regular reviews and a greater emphasis in this area, both as a matter of good governance and the need to report appropriately in the school’s accounts.

Regarding the implementation of the new Charities SORP, Charity Regulators are introducing guidance for independent schools and clearly laying out the specific information they would like to see in the Trustees’ Annual Report in relation to their Summary of Activities and Financial Assistance.

This highlights the importance charity regulators place on the provision of means-tested bursaries to ensure there is no undue restriction that could put the public benefit test at risk. Clearly in the minds of both politicians and regulators this remains a sensitive area where a school’s senior management team must remain vigilant.

In summary, there is no shortage of management challenges facing both the management boards and the senior management teams of independent schools. In order to operate successfully in the current challenging economic environment, where fee levels, which have generally increased ahead of inflation, are out of reach for many, schools are meeting these challenges head-on by adopting business-like structures and practices.

Henderson Loggie's George Hay - salaries of course remain the most expensive cost for indpendent schools.
"The fundamental challenge facing any independent school's management is to ensure that the school roll is as close to the set budget as possible."

When schools think of becoming an academy

SUE FOSTER, a partner at accountancy firm KNILL JAMES, says: As more and more schools across the country consider whether to move out of local authority control and become an academy, what are the biggest compliance and accountancy issues they face? How should they structure the new board to best cope with those issues and what should they take into consideration at the start of the process? Here are some tips:

FACE UP TO THE CHALLENGE OF APPOINTING A NEW BOARD. Getting the right governance structure in place is the first step to creating an academy which is well organised and compliant, so creating a strong board is crucial. This may well require significant changes to the current board of governors.

It is important for everyone involved to understand how different it is to be a trustee on the board of an academy rather than a governor at a school under local authority control.

Being a trustee brings with it a whole new level of responsibility, including financial responsibility, as well as intense scrutiny. Those who take on the role are also directors of a high profile company and must accept and expect all the challenges that brings.

For schools looking to apply for academy status this can be an issue. Some long term governors may not want to take on that level of responsibility and will choose to resign their post. Others, who have been part of the school fabric for many years, may not now be suitable to remain in such a role. There are diplomatic as well as logistical issues to consider.

GET THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR BOARD RIGHT. Your new board needs to be able to deliver high standards of governance and strategic leadership.

It will require people with significant management and leadership skills but also trustees with skills in key areas such as finance, law and education. It is wise to include someone with a strong educational background.

Consider too that the head teacher is probably not the right person to chair; even if they have done so in the past. For a single academy the head or principal should always be one of the trustees but equally should be answerable to the board. An academy needs a strong board that is not afraid to question the decisions of teaching and management staff - but also one that does not meddle in the day to day running of the school. The board is there to play a strategic role.

UNDERSTAND THE RULES. Being an academy brings with it new freedoms in an educational sense – autonomy in setting parts of the curriculum and in how the budget is spent for instance – but there is no escape from regulation.

There are several key documents that should be studied in detail at the start of the process.

These are:

  • The Academies Financial Handbook – updated annually by the EFA (Education Funding Agency) this sets out all of the financial accountability requirements that apply to academies.
  • The Funding Agreement – agreed between the academy and the EFA
  • The memorandum and articles of the company – specific to the individual academy.

Additionally, trustees should be aware of regulations designed to aid transparency.

These include requirements that all business interests of trustees – and of any connected persons – must be declared. Trustees can provide services for an academy – but must do so at "cost".

GET APPROPRIATE FINANCIAL PROCESSES IN PLACE. Putting in place a business manager who understands all the financial processes required - and who possesses leadership skills - is crucial. Trustees should also appoint external auditors who can then provide further support. Getting the back office right is a vital step for a new academy and critical to good accounting.

The principal or head teacher should also have an understanding of the accounts office and be aware of their compliance responsibilities. Understanding regularity and putting good risk management strategies in place is key.

CONSIDER TAX IMPLICATIONS. Key decisions include whether to claim back VAT using the VAT126 form (for use by local authorities and similar bodies) or whether to register for VAT instead.

Academies are charitable trusts but additional trading activity may be viewed differently. There are many caveats but profits from lettings, for instance, could have tax and VAT implications. These are the kind of details that can trip you up if not handled correctly.

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Knill James' Sue Foster - being a trustee brings with it a whole new level of responsibility, including financial responsibility, as well as intense scrutiny.
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