Creating risk awareness

Risk awareness is a different matter to risk assessment, argues Nickii Messer, and it involves an understanding of strategic, governance, financial, legal and reputational risks

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Nickii Messer was a school business leader for 16 years across three school phases, including senior leadership roles. Nickii is passionate about training and professional development for school business professionals, and since 2008 has been...

Risk is defined as 'a situation involving exposure to danger'. Schools are good at creating reams of risk assessments to help control, manage and avoid dangers which threaten the health and safety of our children, staff and visitors.

Risk awareness, however, is fundamentally different. It is the recognition and identification of potential exposure to dangers, a necessary first step to risk control.

Comprehensive risk awareness requires those responsible to keep abreast of legislation, regulations, guidelines and policies

For schools to be more comprehensively secure, risk management must be underpinned with an awareness of different categories of risk and the potential impact on the current and future success (and viability) of the school. 

Risk and responsibility

Governors also need to be aware of risks associated with their strategic role. The DfE's Schools causing concern guidance cites governors 'not sufficiently managing risks associated with strategic priorities and school improvement plans' (see page 15) as one of several weaknesses in governance which may lead to a warning notice. 

Creating a culture of risk awareness requires knowledge, understanding and commitment. Comprehensive risk awareness requires those responsible to keep abreast of legislation, regulations, guidelines and policies. They need to scan the education environment with the current and future context of their school in mind.

Becoming more aware of risk

As children we find out about dangers through experience and learning from our parents and teachers. We gradually build up a portfolio of the things that might harm us, such as running on ice, staying too long in the sun, climbing trees, talking to strangers. 

For schools to be able to predict and plan for the many potential dangers that may befall them, they need to ensure that their portfolio of risks is sufficiently broad to cover all categories of risk.

Different types of risk

Schools are mostly very aware of personal or human risks.  These are the risks and hazards associated with the health, safety and wellbeing of children, staff and visitors. 

Some examples of personal risks are:

  • children out on trips and visits
  • improper use of tools, equipment, chemicals
  • insufficient safer recruitment
  • overuse of display screens.

These risks tend to be well understood and documented, but it is still important for everyone to be aware that there may be other risks that might not have been identified previously. 

Strategic risk

Like all successful organisations, schools need a clear vision for their future and plans for achieving it. Working without clearly defined and articulated direction, aims and goals, leaves the school at risk of losing its way. To quote educator and management theorist Laurence J. Peter: 'If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else'. 

But even the most robust improvement or development plans can be susceptible to risk. As part of the senior leadership team, the SBM is well positioned to help identify, and mitigate, risks such as:

  • lack of staff buy-in
  • insufficient funds to achieve priorities for action
  • changes required from Ofsted or the DfE
  • staffing restructures
  • a resistant school culture. As Peter Drucker warns: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’

Financial risk

There are inextricable links between strategic and financial risks, including how effectively the school improvement plan has been costed to ensure affordability. 

The SBM has a duty to make the SLT and governors aware of all financial risks which might impact the school’s ability to achieve necessary standards. Schools causing concern makes it clear that 'evidence of poor financial management' may lead to a warning notice.

Encouraging a culture, especially at SLT and governor level, where the risks associated with funding pressures are openly recognised and discussed, helps create a more proactive environment to control potential dangers, such as:

  • insufficient cash flow
  • lack of financial staff expertise
  • unaffordable staffing structure
  • unrealistic reliance on income such as grants.

Governance risk

'Schools causing concern' explicitly warns of the risks of poor governance. Where governor underperformance may be prejudicial to pupil standards of performance, action can be taken against the school.

Being aware of such risks should help governors put in place a more rigorous and proactive framework for its own improvement, development and sustainability.

Governance risks cited in 'Schools causing concern' (see page 15) include:

  • high governor turnover
  • the governing body having an excessive involvement in the day to day running of the school
  • lack of appropriate engagement with data.

Legal or compliance risk

The increasingly litigious society in which schools operate makes compliance a significantly onerous responsibility for SBMs. SLT and governors may be unaware of the scale of dangers involved in non-compliance, which can even lead to a prison sentence for those holding accountability.

Fraud often originates through opportunism rather than premeditated action

Members of SLT and governance may need help in recognising the complexities of compliance responsibilities, and the consequences of failing to meet compliance thresholds. Especially in large, or more complex, school settings, it may not be possible for the SBM to keep up to date with every area of compliance, which will include health and safety, HR and finance. With little or no LA support, many schools – especially those no longer maintained – buy into specialist compliance advisory services.

Fraud risk

Schools have clear guidelines on probity and processes to reduce the risk of fraud (see the anti-fraud, bribery and corruption policy). But the growing number of fraud cases highlights the fact that these risks still exist, however robust policies may be.

Fraud often originates through opportunism rather than premeditated action and acknowledging this as a risk will help the SBM understand the imperative for rigorously applying agreed policies, as well as being prepared to take speedy action if things don’t seem right.

It may seem insensitive to talk about the risk of fraud, especially with senior staff and governors, so the SBM needs to explain the risks objectively, making everyone aware of the significant consequences to the school, colleagues and governors involved. All staff and governors also need to know how to use the school’s whistleblowing procedures.

Reputational risk

Inevitably most school risks also present a danger to the school’s reputation. Bad news travels fast, and it can take years to recover from a reputation damaged in a very short space of time.

But reputational risks should be considered in their own right too. Start by recognising the importance of a good reputation and how it is achieved. This helps the school better understand the potential for harm if things go wrong.

People have the most potential to damage a school’s reputation, and that includes staff and governors. A rigorous and explicit code of conduct embedded, read and understood by all staff is essential and should form part of the induction process for all new staff. This goes for governors too: 'all maintained schools should have a code of conduct setting high standards of the role, conduct and professionalism of their governors' ('Schools causing concern', page 36).

Include a strategy for positive and proactive communication through social media

While pupils are often positive ambassadors, they can also bring disrepute on their school, especially through their behaviour outside school gates. Parents and children alike should understand the implications if  pupils dress and behave inappropriately when in uniform, including on trips or travelling to and from home.

Parents increasingly use social media to voice opinions and concerns. What people say on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and how well the school responds, can have a significant impact on the school’s reputation, so include a strategy for positive and proactive communication through social media in the school’s marketing strategy.

Taking action

The SBM can have a vital role in making risk awareness part of the school culture by creating a positive framework for action. Don’t assume that everyone has the same level of awareness of risk nor their responsibility to be risk aware.

Placing risk awareness on every leadership and governance agenda, and building it into strategic planning processes, reminds key stakeholders of their role in identifying and planning for risk. Use Inset days and training sessions to get the message across to all staff, especially in a way that everyone can understand and buy into.

Being actively risk aware should provide a platform for more rigorously identifying possible dangers and make the school a safer, more successful place for all stakeholders.

Although it can be useful to categorise risks, they are rarely autonomous, so avoid only viewing them in isolation. For example, poor financial planning may create human risk, as staff face redundancies. A matrix like the one below can help create a more structured analysis of risk and potential areas of impact.

Category Risk identification Impact on school improvement Impact on person or property Impact on reputation


Last Updated: 
13 Mar 2023