You’re only as good as your last crisis

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New year and more importantly the start of my second year as Head. Having worked so hard last year to get everything in place that I need to move the school forward I am confident that nothing can stand in my way. This is my school, my rules and I am the master of my domain. What, I ask you, can possibly go wrong?
At approximately 1:00pm on Friday I was informed by a teacher that a pupil had possibly opened the school gates and walked out. She had just come back from lunch and some children had told her that this child had escaped. She seemed a little sceptical as no member of staff outside seemed to be aware – even the person on gate duty – but she thought it worth reporting to me. On hearing the news I thanked her and promptly walked out to the playground where a member of the lunchtime supervision staff informed me that yes, they had seen a boy leave the site, and for reasons I have yet to get to grips with, they decided to do nothing.

I cannot exactly remember what I felt at this point: rage, disbelief, panic, despair and inadequacy were all pretty much there and I think I also said something out loud that although was undoubtedly truthful was probably, in hindsight, pretty unhelpful at that moment in time. This disorientating cocktail of emotions lasted about 3 seconds before I sobered up and I began to try and act with some degree of leadership.

Firstly, I went back into school told the Deputy that we had a missing child and off we went to quickly look around the local area. Whilst doing so, I got the office to ring the police and get me the child’s address. After a few minutes I had the address and found myself knocking on the door and greeting the unexpected parent with a phrase I truly hope you’ll never need: ‘Is you child at home? No? Well, I’m afraid he’s not at school either…sorry.’ Then, before I could think of the next stage of my plan, the police rocked up.

Up until this point I was being driven primarily through fear. Having to tell a parent you have no idea where their child is, is probably one of the crappiest jobs I’ve had to do but it was only the fear that made me do it, rather than ‘paper, scissor, stone’ it with someone else. Likewise calling the police: in my heart of hearts I was thinking ‘Can I get away with this without ringing the police and the whole thing becoming massive?’ But the fear told me that I had to do the right thing, I had to get the maximum amount of help to find a child who had literally slipped out of the school’s care.

Once the police were in control with a full search (including police helicopter), a ‘sweep’ of the school and officers reviewing the CCTV footage, I went back to school. Now maybe it was because I was back in my office or maybe it is because deep down I’m really just a grubby self-preserving schmuck but I started to think about the school and what I could do to help ‘it’. From getting an HR rep ready for Monday morning advice, writing the school’s account for the newsletter, wondering how to talk about it with the children in the afternoon’s assembly, deciding how to go through it with staff, ringing my chair of governors whilst all the time thinking ‘Come on…think! What else should I be doing?’

As well as various worst case scenarios about the child that would flutter into my head and wallop my brain like a flump being hit by a hammer, I also began to ask futuristic questions concerning my school. Would this generate media interest, trigger an Ofsted, a school closure, a couple of sackings and the general teaching council and NAHT asking for me to return my membership cards?

Then, after what had been a pretty unpleasant 57 minutes, I had the call that the child was safe and had been returned home. To say that a wave of relief washed over me is probably a cliché but who cares because I’d just found out that a pupil in my school was safe and that really, really mattered. The aftermath went pretty much as I had expected: I acknowledged the incident in the newsletter, spoke to the children reiterating that it was wrong to leave the school site without permission, debriefed the staff and got debriefed myself by the police.

They were surprisingly positive about how we had responded and even commended me and the staff on the support and assistance we had given them. I eventually rang the child’s parents and we set up a meeting to investigate it further and to think about any support needed. They were also grateful with our response – I can only imagine that the shock and relief of the previous hour was preventing them from asking the all-important question: how was it allowed to happen?

These are questions that I will obviously explore myself in the coming days and I’m sure the school’s safeguarding procedures will be strengthened. I too will be judged and I wonder what impact that judgement will have on the school’s future. All that will depend on whether the judgement is based on the event itself, how I responded at the time, or the actions I take after a review. Whichever these becomes the most dominant, the whole episode has reminded me once again that there is little room for smugness over your school development plan successes…because that comfy rug under your feet is simply waiting to be pulled.

3 thoughts on “You’re only as good as your last crisis

  1. Phil H September 17, 2013 / 5:44 am

    “I can only imagine that the shock and relief of the previous hour was preventing them from asking the all-important question: how was it allowed to happen?”
    Huh, that question doesn’t seem nearly so important to me as “does the school do the appropriate thing in the event?” which you clearly had. I’ve lost mine a few times. Children are little escape artists and stuff happens. The question you pose there is a management question, certainly the one you should be thinking about, but it’s not the first one that would cross my mind as a parent.

    Good luck!

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