Happy Learners - Managing Critical Incidents

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Managing Critical Incidents

Tragic events are unfortunately part of everyday life and it is only prudent that schools have agreed procedures and guidelines in place to cover any future event. All staff need to be familiar with these important school documents and have a thorough understanding of their own role during a critical incident.

What is a critical incident?

Critical incidents include any event that involves significant injury, illness or death of a member of the school community. This can be both events that occur on the school site like a child suffering a serious anaphylactic reaction or off-site like a road accident involving the school minibus. They can also be events that are not directly related to school activities like a student dying of cancer.

A critical incident can also be any event that can significantly interrupt the functioning of the school or the wider school community. These are potentially more common occurring events depending on how your school defines what constitutes a critical incident. Each school will have their own definition based on how frequent the events occur and the capacity of the school to manage them. For example, a heavy snowfall could significantly disrupt a school that rarely experiences such events whilst another well used to snow would not consider it to be a problem. It is also essential to define what constitutes significant interruption for your school. For example, how many staff would need to be absent before the school would struggle to operate safely?

Who should deal with critical incidents?

Critical incidents are by their nature highly stressful and upsetting. People vary in their ability to cope successfully with the emotional impact of bereavements and critical incidents. Also an individual may at times be more emotionally vulnerable than usual as a result of recent incidents in their own lives e.g. recent bereavements, serious illnesses etc. For these reasons it is important to carefully consider the personnel that will be involved in dealing with critical incidents. Personnel should be volunteers. Thus, though members of the senior management team will necessarily need to be involved in some of the decision making, other personnel may be identified who are better suited to face to face management of the incident. For example, a school counsellor or teaching assistant may have the right experience or aptitude to deal with highly emotional situations leaving more senior colleagues to deal with the adminstrative management of the incident.

How do you ensure the well-being of staff?

All staff involved in dealing with any stressful or upsetting critical incidents need to be monitored and supported. Opportunities should be provided for them to unburden their own feelings and ensure that they attend to their own basic needs: food, drink, toilet and rest. Appropriate support should be provided at the end of a critical incident to ensure that staff reflect on the event and identify whether any further support will be necessary. In incidents involving serious injury or death of children or staff there should be appropriate follow up over the days and weeks that follow. Particularly, vulnerable are headteachers who are often supporting everyone else's needs and sometimes denying their own need for support.

Stephen Norwood:
I arrived at a school during lunchtime for a meeting with the headteacher and SENCO. Everything appeared as normal as we exchanged greetings and the usual offering of refreshments was done. The meeting began and then about ten minutes later there was a knock at the door. A member of staff apologised for interrupting us but asked if the headteacher could see her daughter who was a student at the school. The headteacher excused herself and whilst out of the room the SENCO explained that her daughter was probably still a little upset about the car accident that morning. Though fortunately neither of them had been injured it had been quite a dramatic accident with serious damage to the car. After a few minutes the headteacher returned and tried to continue with the meeting. However, it was clear that she was unsettled and a simple expression of concern from me was enough to reduce this seasoned headteacher to tears. It then took a lot of convincing from me and the assistant head to persuade the head to go home with a daughter and forget about her responsibilities in school for the rest of the day.

Being a strong, resilient leader does not require denial of personal emotional and social needs and it is not healthy to do so. Clearly, leadership require individuals who are calm and objective during crisis but the true test of leadership is about recognising the need to take a break and process your own thoughts and emotions.

What rooming considerations are there?

Careful consideration should be given to how rooming within the school can be used to deal with critical incidents in an effective and sensitive way. This might be the administrative part of the school such as the school office or it may be better dealt with the situation in the hall or a more remote classroom. How will you know and who will make the decision? How will that decision be communicated to everyone? What arrangements need to be made to accomodate visitors. This could include local authority services, emergency services and parents. For example, how might upset and distressed parents enter and leave the building without having to pass through busy school areas.

Dependant on the location and nature of the critical incident it may prove necessary to evacuate part or whole of the school immediately. Identifying a nearby site, i.e. within walking distance, that can accommodate all the staff and pupils needs to be found and an agreement for it use in an emergency put in place. In urban areas, schools will often be able to find other local schools where a reciprocal arrangement for managing emergencies can be agreed. In rural areas this may be less easy though often small village schools have nearby churches or village halls that can be utilised.

What resources do we need?

What telecommunications do you have available? Mobile phones may be ubiquitous but signal coverage is not always available particularly outside urban areas. Even where a good signal exists a critical incident may cause an overload on the local relay if too many people make simultaneous calls. For example, during terrorist incidents or other local civil emergencies. Access to landlines can be more reliable and wireless handsets can be useful. Alternatively, many schools routinely use radio transceivers (walkie talkies) to communicate across the school site. The school's normal phone line can quickly become jammed with incoming calls from anxious parents, such as during a road traffic incident involving a school coach. Having an alternative line to use only for making outgoing calls is necessary. Often this might can be a fax line if you have one. It is often possible for the local phone company to arrange additional emergency lines within a couple of hours. This could be useful if dealing with an incident that is unfolding over a period of time such as an significant accident on a residential or overseas school trip.

An critical incident bag is a sensible investment. In a robust holdall or rucksac place the following items: a laminated copy of school critical incident procedures; names and contact details of all children and staff; contact details for local emergency services; local authority emergency contacts; utility companies; taxi and bus or coach companies; first aid kit; torch and spare batteries. In the event of needing to evacuate part of or the whole site, the bag can be quickly grabbed together with any emergency medication required such as asthma inhalers and mobile phone and or radios. Sometimes school may use portable ICT devices, like laptops or increasingly tablets, with all the contact details stored together with much more useful data. This is ideal but there should still be a printed copy of basic information.

Depending on the duration of the critical incident consider how you might arrange provision of refreshments, meals, rest for staff, visitors and students who have not been collected etc.


Minor incidents happen each day and staff become accustomed to these and proficient at dealing with them. Critical incidents happen more rarely and the most serious types of incident happen so infrequently that many schools will never experience them. However, because they are so rare we are least prepared and equipped to deal with them. So just like the termly fire drills it is good practice to organise regular discussion and practice of managing critical incidents and these should be at least an annual event.


Bereavement Letters to Parents

Bereavement Letters to Parents

Three sample letters are included to aid schools in drafting their own. Permission is given to adapt this resource as necessary and remove Happy Learners logos.

Telephone Prompts to Parents For Incidents Occurring At School

Telephone Prompts to Parents For Incidents Occurring At School

Seven sample prompts covering a range of circumstances such as school closure and injury to pupils are included to aid schools in drafting their own. Permission is given to adapt this resource as necessary and remove Happy Learners logos.

Phone Prompts to Parents for Incidents on School Trips

Telephone Prompts to Parents For Incidents Occurring On School Trip

Four sample telephone prompts are included to communicate to parents whether their child has been affected or not. This resource should help staff quickly draft appropriate prompts for the specific circumstances of the incident. Permission is given to adapt this resource as necessary and remove Happy Learners logos.