It's tough at the top, but schools can't put good PR over a child's life

Pressure to survive amid competition for pupils can never be an excuse for not giving students' well-being top priority, former principal argues in wake of Hong Kong coroner's criticism of a school's handling of pupil's deadly fall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 2:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 3:42pm

Does a school's reputation mean more than the life of an individual student? That question springs to mind when considering the death of a pupil who fell from the roof of a school in 2013. A coroner lambasted the school's senior staff for their handling of the incident. Its aftermath has triggered considerable concern.

Most comments dwelt on the improper attitude and insensitivity of the staff, who allegedly placed more importance on the potential damage to the school's name than the child's life. Apparently, staff refrained from calling the emergency services after the incident for fear of the unfavourable publicity it would bring.

Some showed concern for the victim's parents, the anxieties of other parents who entrusted their kids to the school, and the well-being of the students, who have been bewildered by the whole affair.

Understandably, little sympathy has been shown to the school's leadership. Other than comments about their ethical conduct, not much was said about their predicament in today's educational landscape and the way out. Even less was said about the underlying cause for the common phenomenon of schools trying desperately to protect their image. The incident illustrates the multifaceted challenge confronting schools nowadays.

Past school closures and the threat of future closures have spawned stiff competition among schools. The system whereby parents try to get their children into already high-performing schools had led to a situation wherein unfit and underperforming schools are rooted out. This reliance on competition to drive school improvement - often at odds with educational ideals - sounds reasonable in our highly commercialised society. Schools that do not win parents' approval will naturally lose out.

However, without the likes of vital statistics on performance to guide parental choice, schools' images, PR gimmicks, and word-of-mouth popularity among members of the community will naturally become important reference standards.

Consequently, schools strive to gain a good reputation and avoid negative publicity because such efforts could be a matter of life or death.

Such rivalry becomes extremely unhealthy when the school-age population declines significantly and government policy remains that of the survival of the fittest.

Pressure to survive, however, can never be any school's excuse for not giving its students' well-being top priority, or resorting to cover-ups or half-truths when things go wrong. But how can school leaders run schools well in a such tough and unhealthy environment?

Besides upholding core educational values, such as students' right to a safe learning environment or caring for the poor and the weak, strong administrative leadership is needed to turn such espoused values into action, or else those values will just be sloganeering.

Nurturing good teacher-student, student-student and school-community relations can help prevent trouble arising. Good teacher relations also provide much-needed emotional support in times of stress and hardship.

The healthy school model as advocated by the World Health Organisation is worthy of consideration. Stressing holistic health and people-centred strategies, it puts prevention before cure. Pragmatically speaking, a safe, healthy and caring school will attract students and be conducive to good learning.

To prepare for potential adversity, a school's leadership also needs to lay down clearly the proper rules and procedures to follow in times of crisis and enforce them conscientiously when the such circumstances arise.

Besides improving sensitivity to and empathy with people's feelings, they also need public relations skills to handle the media, parents, staff and the community properly. Training in this area is undoubtedly desirable, but diplomacy must be buttressed by integrity and professionalism to maintain understanding and respect and, in some cases, win back public trust. In keeping the school open and running well, the leaders' moral, emotional, cultural and administrative leadership are crucial.

Robin Cheung is a retired school principal