Crisis management for school leaders

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
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When it comes to handling crises, Ben Solly has certainly crammed more than his fair share into his seven years of headship. Here – at a time when all school leaders are in crisis management mode – he outlines his advice for managing challenging situations in schools


The life of a headteacher is a varied one. The scope of leadership requirements is extremely vast. Headteachers are required to be expert teachers, leaders in pedagogy. They are expected to be behaviour gurus, to provide inspirational leadership to local communities and deliver high levels of impact.

It is certainly true that no two days are the same in headship. This variety keeps us on our toes and ensures the job is never boring. However, the unpredictable nature of headship can weigh heavy on those in the position of leading school communities.

I am in my second headship position, my 16th year of teaching and my seventh year of being a head. I completed the National Professional Qualification for Headship in 2015 and, since 2019, have facilitated the latest iteration of this qualification for aspiring heads.

In the sessions I have delivered I have always tried to include practical advice to support the theory, as well as some real-life context that delegates can relate to.

However, the reality is that life as a headteacher is completely unpredictable and every single day could present a scenario that you have never before encountered. The truth is that the buck stops with the headteacher and, should disaster strike, we are the ones who end up in court.

I heard a somewhat sombre reflection recently from a headteacher, who was sharing the advice afforded to them at the start of their career: “What would the coroner think of your decision-making?”



COVID-19 PODCAST: Ben Solly recently joined fellow headteachers and ASCL's Geoff Barton for an episode of The SecEd Podcast focused on Covid-19 – the lessons learned during the autumn term and planning ahead for 2021. Listen for free here.



When I reflect on the situations I have encountered as a head, I feel like I have crammed two decades worth of headship into my seven years. I have experienced heart-breaking moments where students have passed away suddenly, rocking the school community to the core. I have dismissed teachers who have committed illegal acts that have ultimately resulted in barring orders from the profession.

On my first day as an acting headteacher, the 30-foot chimney in the centre of the school was struck by lightning during lunch, causing us to evacuate and call in the fire service.

In my first headship, I recall calling the bomb squad into school to dispose of a chemical (2,4-DNPH) previously used to deliver A level chemistry that had been deemed unsafe to store. This led to a controlled explosion in the centre circle of the football pitch.

You can imagine the shock when the head of science sheepishly turned up at my door the following morning to inform me they had just found some more!

Most recently, following the lengthy period of school closures due to the pandemic, my current school caught fire two days before the start of term, causing extensive damage and delaying the start of the academic year by three weeks.

These are just a few examples of the extremely challenging scenarios I have dealt with; I know that every headteacher will have their own series of situations that have required them to think on their feet and make decisions in circumstances they have never experienced before.

Even on a “normal” day in headship, a headteacher makes hundreds of decisions on a wide variety of issues. However, when an unusual or dangerous situation presents itself, the decision-making of the headteacher is absolutely critical.
The following guide to managing challenging situations offers a practical set of measures for heads and school leaders.


Plan, prepare, model

“When disaster strikes, the time to prepare has passed.” Steven Cyros

We all run fire drills in schools. We practise how all students and staff should safely evacuate the building so that everyone knows what to do if there were a real fire. Schools are traditionally very good at this and routinely execute these drills on a termly basis.

However, how often do we plan for other types of disaster? Is there a plan or set of protocols for other major crisis situations? Of course, it is impossible to plan for every situation and eventuality, but it is possible to create a set of routines and structures for dealing with a crisis.

A recommended exercise for a senior leadership team to complete would be a “what if X happens?” task. Dedicate one senior leadership meeting per year to running through a hypothetical crisis situation and identify:

  • Who takes a lead in dealing with the crisis?
  • What other roles require delegating?
  • What immediate steps need to be actioned?
  • What are the short, medium and long-term steps that need to be organised?
  • Who are the external agencies that would be involved? Are the contact details for these organisations accessible by all leaders?
  • What is the communication strategy? Who are the major stakeholders requiring involvement?
  • How is the response being coordinated, organised and documented? Is administrative support required?

If a senior leadership team runs through one crisis situation per year it allows for a level of preparedness for the team when a disaster does strike. The challenge here is dedicating the time to perform this modelling exercise during the humdrum of a hectic school term. It is time well-spent however. It is not only excellent CPD for leaders, it will save time in the long run due to a more effective response to the real crisis when it arrives.


Stay calm and tension-free

“Losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become the crisis.” CJ Redwine

A pivotal element of our leadership approach at Uppingham Community College is the notion of “Tension-Free Leadership”. This is founded upon the understanding that good decisions can only be made when a leader is free of tension.

Being tension-free allows for calm and objective decision-making, which is absolutely critical in a crisis. Becoming a tension-free leader is a gradual process, which needs deliberate practice and constant reflection. It involves removing emotion from decision-making and understanding on a deep level that achieving a desired outcome or a perfect solution is not always possible.

Tension is often caused by worrying about what the outcome might be and this can impair the judgement of a leader. Instead, the leader must accept that some things are simply not in their control, and therefore they should focus on what they can directly influence. “Controlling the controllables,” some might call it; I prefer to ask leaders to focus on leading and managing in a manner that is aligned with their own personal values and the values of the school. If leaders can achieve this, they can be satisfied that they have led and managed in the right way, and this allows them to be tension-free in their leadership and their decision-making.

Communicate

“Leadership is 10 per cent doing things and 90 per cent explaining why you’ve done them.” Sir John Dunford (via Geoff Barton).

If there is one thing I have learned during the pandemic, it is that effective communication can be the difference between people aligning themselves with you or rebelling against you. In leadership, you have to accept that you cannot please everyone; some people will disagree strongly with your decisions, others will sign up quickly and be important advocates for you.

However, successful leaders will usually obtain a critical mass of followers who support a particular decision or policy and when these people are on board, that is when momentum can be built.

The key questions are how do we create these early adopters and advocates, and can we use them to create impetus and forward motion for our ideas? Communication is key and it is important to realise that simply telling people what is going to happen is not enough. To create followers and advocates, people need to understand the rationale behind decisions and even have some influence in shaping them.

For leaders in a crisis situation, drawing in opinions and perspectives from all angles is important in order to see the big picture, as well as having the empathy to see and understand how a particular decision will affect all stakeholders.

Balancing all of this information, then drawing together a coherent and detailed plan which is subsequently communicated, along with the rationale, is key in creating enough buy-in across an organisation.

There are also times, where difficult messages need to be carefully managed to mitigate against negative publicity or rumours. Communication is key in managing the narrative effectively.

When dealing with a situation in a previous headship, I was faced with a scenario that I knew would certainly result in interest from local and national newspapers.

In order to stay on the front foot and ensure the requisite information was communicated in the right way, I was proactive in contacting the press and steering the account of events from our perspective.

I also wrote to parents and the local community in advance of the story, meaning people became aware of the issue from me and not via a journalist. This approach was instrumental in managing a difficult message effectively.


Enlist help

“None of us is smarter than all of us.” Ken Blanchard

Headship is often referred to as a lonely occupation, a solo pursuit that requires the thickest of skin and draws significantly on the wells of one’s resilience. This can certainly be the case if the headteacher attempts to solve everything themselves, but this is neither healthy nor particularly effective.

Thankfully, the days of the “Super Head” who single-handedly provides solutions to all the problems of an organisation are long-gone. This approach to leadership is not sustainable and is more akin to dictatorship.

Headteachers need to understand that they cannot do everything themselves, and it is a very bad idea to try to. Especially in a crisis. During times when disaster strikes, a school needs a leader with a clear head, who is tension-free, and who can weigh up the variables before making the right calls.

This means enlisting help – and lots of it. The fewer tasks the head takes on themselves during the crisis planning meetings, the better. The head’s job is to coordinate and oversee, and then hold the leadership team to account for getting things done properly.


Step back, take time

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain.

I always think an effective senior leadership team should have a range of skills, qualities, and personalities within the personnel.

The least effective headteachers will surround themselves with “yes” people who all nod along and agree; usually this is out of fear and self-preservation. An effective leadership team will disagree, contest ideas and debate a topic until an agreed strategy is reached; at this point, even if there are team members who opposed the ideas during the discussion, they will now align themselves strongly to the team decision and work towards achieving it.

In a crisis situation, when managing extremely complex and sometimes unique situations, a headteacher needs people around them who will offer alternative viewpoints and play devil’s advocate. They will have team members who will have the required empathy to view the situation from the perspective of others and anticipate how decisions will affect all stakeholders.

The headteacher’s role is to listen to all of this, control the discussion and steer it appropriately, before weighing up all of the options and then having the decisiveness to make the right call.

These important decisions should not be rushed, and I have learned from experience to step back and take my time; sometimes even sleeping on things and revisiting the decision with my team the following morning to see if we all still think it is the right call.


Learn from the experience

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt

There will rarely be times where identical scenarios present themselves, and therefore heads have to be adaptable and flexible with regard to their approach to solving problems. However, I would recommend that all heads dedicate a substantial amount of time to personal and team reflection post-crisis.

Dissecting the outcomes and the impact of decisions is an extremely useful exercise so that, when the next crisis occurs, the lessons learned can be applied to ensure the latest challenge is dealt with more effectively.

This requires a headteacher to have a reflective nature and to be unafraid of openly admitting mistakes in front of their team. It requires a headteacher to really know their own limitations as a leader and to be prepared to share these with colleagues.

It also requires a headteacher to be incredibly resilient, as the pressure and responsibility of dealing with a crisis can weigh heavy on the shoulders of those in charge.

Having the courage and strength to not only deal with tackling the situation, but then subsequently evaluating the effectiveness of how it was handled, requires exceptionally strong leadership.


  • Ben Solly is the headteacher of Uppingham Community College in Rutland. Read his previous articles, blogs and other contributions to SecEd via https://bit.ly/3orMtkp


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