How to Bounce Back from School Disruptions (a case study with New South Wales’ Barker College)

by | 11 Oct 2020

“Whilst there are elements of business-as-usual in how we are managing the current situation, the current health crisis is not business-as-usual. We have been focusing on how to turn these events into an occasion to thrive, not survive”. Phillip Heath, Head of Barker College.

 Bounce Readiness is proud to bring you a quarterly series on discussing readiness, resilience and response to school incidents and disruptions.

In part one, we have collaborated with client Barker College to offer schools the chance to learn and adopt effective approaches to managing a business disruption.

Located in Hornsby, a North Shore suburb of Sydney, the College shared their experiences in both preparing for the COVID-19 incident, and their reflections from the incident responses over the past twelve months.

Being prepared for disruptions allows schools to build confidence, capability, and capacity. It allows them to keep staff and students safe, protect property and continue operating, even under the most challenging circumstances. As difficult as this year’s critical incident has been, Barker College has shown this is possible.

In a succession of experiences and lessons identified, the College shares the measures they have implemented, what has worked well with their responses, and some of the challenges they faced in both planning, response, and maintenance.

We are joined by operational members of the Barker College response team, including Head of Barker College, Phillip Heath, Deputy Head – Operations, Matt Macoustra, Director of Risk and Compliance, Roy Cottam, and Head of Boarding, Ben Christopherson.

It is a privilege to get a day’s worth of feedback and experience from the school, of which we have broken down into this article, and the detailed video interview. The video immediately below provides a snapshot. Refer to the bottom of this case study for the full interview.

A co-educational, multi-campus institution

Barker College is an independent, Anglican co-educational early learning, primary and secondary day and boarding school with multiple campuses and locations.

They boast an impressive geographical reach stretching from their Hornsby Campus – which enrols 2400 students – to their Indigenous campuses in Wollombi and Yarramalong, and outdoor and environmental studies centre in the Blue Mountains.

Their boarding houses accommodate 60 students, while their Wollombi Campus and Yarramalong schools currently enrol 15 and 30-day students respectively.

With students and staff across several locations, the College’s critical incident management has to be driven from, and integrated with, strategy and excellent communication.

The unusual nature of this year has meant Barker have had to pivot to remain agile in their response to ongoing disruptions.

However, it became clear during our discussions that the pivot was treated as something positive throughout the College. It is their care and respect for their community and the plan that has contributed to them thriving during this critical incident.

Preparing processes, building resilience, and responding effectively

The three key elements of an incident management program are having documented processes, building resilience through training and exercising, and being ready to respond.

The College’s response to the events of COVID-19 was managed through a lens of prioritising the safety of students, staff, and community. This minimised the impact to staff’s psychological capacity and allowed maximised learning opportunities for students.

Many unanticipated obstacles presented themselves as they navigated the ridged edges of a pandemic. But the College remained confident in their agility in both the critical incident and critical incident response team; moving those obstacles with momentum and confidence.

“We’ve tried to actually turn what is at the end of the day, an unprecedented year of challenge and turn it into something that’s not about reaction, but about getting in front of a decision to make us thrive” says Head of Bark College, Phillip Heath. “Somehow or other in the context of risk, there is thriving, and we think it is possible to manage safely but also to thrive”.

This attitude to response stemmed from several predetermined measures, including reinventing the whole year and increasing communication and technology (like including the addition of radio communication for staff).

Like many schools, they changed around the curriculum, tweaked with the year’s schedule to maximise opportunities, decreased face-to-face learning, and increased online engagements.

Keeping everybody informed was key, says Deputy Head and Operations, Matt Macoustra. “We maintained clarity and anticipated what was ahead, based on government guidelines and advice”.

Nevertheless, there were ongoing challenges.

The Challenges of a critical incident

This pandemic has shown that the human to human experience is vital, we are social creatures. This is truer with young people. Barker identified that the online experience was largely a success but did not support the social experiences many craved.

The COVID fatigue is something many organisations are experiencing as we lead into the eleventh month of the virus’s existence, but many fail to recognise it early and respond.

If mental health is the engine, complacency is its rust.

The staff appeared to be impacted the worst. Juggling curriculum delivery, personal responsibilities and managing a critical incident strategy took its toll. A review of mental health has become an almost daily ritual for the critical incident response team.

Businesses must continue to run and meet their organisational responsibilities no matter the crisis. But this pressure increased anxiety, health and financial concerns for staff and parents. The College has needed to be sensitive and responsive to this concern; communication is king.

When the recent lockdown came to an end, managing the students, staff, parents and wider community became critical. As people began to mingle, concerns were raised on hygiene measures – something Barker needed to be open and clear about.

Dealing with those challenges

The Barker College Critical Incident Response team implemented tried and test initiatives to win with what they were dealt.

They increased awareness of mental health issues and backed this up with more effort in supporting staff with excellent communication.

Health checks have become second nature at the school and across all campuses. These checks appear to be almost part of the culture, and as Matt Macoustra put it, “it’s also been a really lovely way of connecting with the students and the staff as they’ve come in everyday to say good morning. We’ve obviously been unable to gather as a school community and within schools, that’s really important”.

Although originally being daily, their health checks continue to be a common exercise twice weekly. The staff have found it’s ensured the safety, visual reminder and mindfulness of the measures in place without being confrontational.

Staff wellbeing pulse checks have been introduced, covering four areas; wellbeing, feelings for safety while on school ground, the assessment of communication and clarification, and whether they are adequately supported.

Barker “walked the talk” when it came to thoroughly implementing strategies. This contributed to the confidence their staff and parents shared with them.

They recognised within the agile approach, that adaptability to safety protocols needed respect. This could limit staff and student complacency.

The Critical Incident Response Team

It has been clear during our time at the College that the team has and continues to work exceptionally well together. Their strong camaraderie and sustained incident management activities has increased effective collaboration and offered the chance for diverse experiences.

Whilst this experience is clear, there remains a heavy reliance on individual competency – identifying the need to identify the backup team members and provide training where appropriate.

Barker College’s team implemented initiatives early on. These included

  1. Establishing the Critical Incident Response Team membership early in the incident, with consistency on this team throughout the duration of the incident.
  2. Strong leadership was established, allowing clear direction and expectations to the Critical Incident Response Team members.
  3. Decisions were documented and this allowed exceptional visibility and discussion over previous decisions made. This historic referral has helped direct new events early.
  4. Each team member maintained their own personal resilience, bringing confidence and energy to the team (even humour when appropriate).

Alongside this mature and confident team sat an equally established Critical Incident Management Guide. Despite this plan, the team has been open and forgiving that COVID-19 has brought with it unique hurdles that require this plan to be dynamic.

Updates, testing, student Boarder management processes, staff and parent communications, recovery of school operations, and priorities for recovery of critical functions all needed re-evaluating as a result of the pandemic.

They now combat this with regular updates of the pandemic sub-plan as well as now embarking on development of their Business Continuity Program (BCP), scheduled for early 2021.

Managing communications and stakeholders

As we interviewed the stakeholders involved with the management and recovery of the critical incident, it was reiterated time and time again that communication has played a vital role in their response.

Predictably, Barker faced some challenges with communications during the incident, but they have provided regular and consistent updates both internally and externally.

With such a unique and global event, however, key stakeholders were passionate about wanting to be close to the decision making, an added distraction to the response. To manage this, they approached clear narratives via a variety of useful mediums that were reviewed frequently.

Emails, text, social media, face to face, push alerts, virtual and even podcasts share critical information and updates for all stakeholders.

But as Deputy Head – Operations, Matt Macoustra put it, “there has been a sense of being visible. Don’t make decisions from behind a computer screen. To be out and do as much as you can to be seen to be implementing the direction and changes being put in place”. It’s this approach that has presented the leadership’s ability to showcase their understanding of the ever-changing event.

Stakeholders embody parents and staff, to School Council members and other Barker community members. To ensure everyone was heard and understood, the College established a COVID committee.

This allowed for the college Critical Incident Response Team to establish the recommended plan and make decisions, yet work within governance guidelines and maintain statutory risks.

Maintaining a school during a critical incident

Barker College has done an impressive job on managing the impacts from the incident at the same time as continuing school operations and looking for opportunities to thrive. But, they’ve been honest in recognising areas for improvement.

Where the risk of managing the incident and continuing operations as a school became complex, they reimagined the term dates, allowed flexibility in staff working from home, and pushed for normality.

When integrating the critical incident management process with business continuity proved challenging, the school established new normal processes that remained in line with overall school strategy.

Information management established itself as a critical area for response teams. It allowed the right information to be shared, assessed and provided space for informed decisions. The team recognised that this became more prevalent during the conflicting information shared by the media and the rapidly changing environment they are in.

To keep proactive, the team initiated better mechanisms to capture valid information, including sourcing valid information and centrally recording key facts. They established a process of assessing that information to inform the decisions required.

With multiple years in the resilience industry, Director of Risk and Compliance, Roy Cottam brings his dynamic experience and a fresh perspective to school preparedness. Roy began his role at Barker College during the same month Australia confirmed its first COVID-19 case.

Cottam puts an emphasis on staff preparedness.

“What I’ve been able to do is go out and meet with them [the staff] and ask them ‘what are some of the challenges’. Only about a third of schools [in Australia] are training and testing plans. That’s why Barker is at the front foot of that. We want to train fire wardens, our Boarding staff, and some of the things that are forgotten, [like] reception staff. If something happens and they answer the phone, how do they deal with that?”

As commonly observed, Roy and the team recognised the difficulties in scheduling training and timetabling of staff as well as bringing an understanding of risk into the business-as-usual format.

It’s obstacles like these that fuel the need for external support. It allows the team to have further assistance and build their program. The support Bounce Readiness provides builds on documentation, training, exercising and education for staff through an approach that’s been tried and tested by dozens of previous school clients.

In summary

Barker College are leading the charge on a response to this year’s challenges. They are clear, concise, and confident in their approach. In collaboration with them, we have compiled fifteen standout tips and advice you can use in your own resilience journey.

  1. Capture and action learnings.
  2. Balance the need and purpose.
  3. Look over the horizon to the impacts likely to be faced.
  4. Ensure the right people are on the critical incident management / response team, with flexibility to scale the team up and down, and bring team members in and out based on the skill and experience needed. Determine the team at the start of the incident.
  5. Maintain a sense of calm and continue communications.
  6. Be visible – do not make decisions from behind a computer screen. Be seen to be implementing the actions. Get feedback from stakeholders.
  7. Keep a record of decisions made. This allows additional team members to keep abreast of decisions and allows the team to review progress and reflect on lessons learnt. Particularly for the slow burn, long term incidents and disruptions.
  8. Conduct training for those involved, increasing capability, confidence and capacity for all team members in responding to incidents and business disruption measures.
  9. Bring skills into the team from diverse backgrounds.
  10. Customise the emergency response, critical incident management and business continuity plans, and keep them as simple as possible.
  11. Establish an effective communications network to allow communications internally and externally.
  12. Establish information management
  13. Ensure your program covers the whole of school, including extracurricular, outdoor programs, boarding etc.
  14. Conduct training, exercising, and Establish an annual program.
  15. Schedule training a year ahead.

A quarterly series by Bounce Readiness.

We work with high risk industries across emergency management, critical incident management, business continuity and crisis management. As we support and grow organisational response, we want to ensure others have access to the conversations we’re having and the good news stories we uncover.

Our passion and experience creates confidence and resilience for our clients across Australia, and it can for you too. For further information or to receive assistance in developing your program, you can contact us obligation free today.

School Resilience Survey

This specific survey focuses on lessons learnt from incidents over the last 12 months, and takes approximately 10 minutes to complete.