Key stages of response
The following steps should be taken in the immediate aftermath of a death or bereavement at your school:
Contact the family to find out what has happened and how they would like their child(ren) to be supported
Prepare the bereavement team – explain what has happened and ensure everyone understands their role and responsibilities
Tell other people
Once you have made contact with the family, and agreed what information can be shared, and with whom, tell staff and other pupils, as appropriate, what has happened as quickly as possible.
The way that you tell people should be carefully planned and scheduled to ensure that you are delivering information to the right people at the right time, as sensitively as possible, while also respecting the family’s wishes and their right to confidentiality.
Be aware of the impact of social media, and take whatever steps you can to avoid staff or pupils finding out what has happened through social media channels before you have had a chance to talk to them.
This is why it is so important to get accurate information and communicate it sensitively as quickly as possible.
If it is practicable to do so, hold an all-staff meeting to explain what has happened. You should also inform staff who are unable to attend, either in person or by phone. It is important that all staff, including non-teaching staff, are told about what has happened and given the opportunity to ask questions.
Before breaking the news, consider whether any members of staff may require additional support, perhaps because they have recently been bereaved themselves or have been bereaved in similar circumstances.
Tell other pupils
After staff have been informed, you should aim to tell pupils about what has happened as soon as possible. Before breaking the news to pupils, consider:
- if there are pupils who have been bereaved themselves – in particular if there are pupils who have been bereaved recently or in similar circumstances;
- whether other pupils might have known the person who has died, for example if they were friends with the pupil(s) who has been bereaved;
- pupils’ level of understanding about death, bereavement and grief; and
- how to support staff who are responsible for explaining what has happened.
Depending on the circumstances, you may choose to tell pupils what has happened in small groups, as a class or during a whole school assembly. It’s important to create an environment where pupils feel comfortable to ask questions and talk about what has happened. Explain to pupils that their classmate may behave differently when they return to the school.
Most PSHE programmes include units on loss, grief and managing difficult feelings. After a bereavement, it may be appropriate to bring forward a unit of learning or swap units of learning to create opportunities to discuss concepts of death and bereavement.
Consider whether a pupil who has been bereaved will feel able to take part in these lessons, and discuss this with the family and the pupil, as appropriate.
Tell parents and carers
After teachers and pupils have been informed, and if appropriate and in accordance with the family’s wishes, explain what has happened to parents and carers via letter or email. You will need to outline how school will be supporting pupils in school and provide details of resources and other sources of support that may be available.
If appropriate and approved by the family, share details of funeral arrangements or any memorialisation that is taking place, such as a memory book.
See Useful organisations for contact details of organisations who can offer information and support.
Manage the media
After a sudden death, and particularly in high-profile cases, there may be media interest. Representatives from the press, television or local radio may request an interview, photographs or more information about what has happened.
Your top priority must be to safeguard the privacy of the family, staff and pupils at your school and therefore media attention must be handled very carefully by the headteacher or a member of the senior leadership team.
You may wish to issue a statement to the press, stating your condolences and including a named quote from the headteacher. Your statement should include contact details for your assigned media spokesperson and their availability. Ensure the bereaved family has seen and approved your statement before it is issued.
Many local authorities and multi-academy trusts have communication departments that can provide advice and support about preparing press statements. Ensure you know who the communications department contact is for your school.
Key advice when working with the media:
- Do not give a comment ‘off the record’. Anything you say to a journalist may be used and quoted within a story.
- If you have arranged an interview with a journalist, find out before the interview what angle they will be taking on the story, and what questions they are likely to ask.
- Find out when the interview will be broadcast, and whether it will be broadcast live or pre-recorded and broadcast at a different time.
- If the interview is for a newspaper, confirm with the journalist whether the story will also be published online.
- You are not obliged to conduct an interview with every media outlet that asks you. School can choose which, if any, media they would like to speak to.
- Arrange training to help key staff prepare for media interest.
See Media Interest page for more information on dealing with the media.
What happens next
If you were unable to confirm details of funeral arrangements in your initial contact with the family, now is the time to confirm when and where the funeral will be held, whether the bereaved pupil(s) will attend, and whether it is appropriate for representatives of the school, including staff or other pupils, to attend.
If the family gives permission for other pupils to attend, you will need to get in touch with parents to tell them this. It may be helpful to explain to pupils what happens at a funeral (including any religious customs that they may be unfamiliar with and give them the opportunity to ask questions.
Pupils who attend the funeral, should be supported during the funeral and offered follow-up support if required.
At this stage, you should confirm whether the bereaved pupil is being supported by any external organisations/agencies and find out from the family who will be responsible for helping reintegrate the pupil into school and how they will provide ongoing support in school and at home.
If you feel it is appropriate to do so, talk to the family to find out how they feel about your school holding its own memorial event, or involving pupils in other memorialising events.