Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools in 2020

For School Leaders and Boards in a COVID-19 World

You can read this briefing online or request a PDF of the paper by clicking the button below.

Download Your PDF Copy

Private School Students

Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools in 2020



While students have returned to relatively normal classroom teaching in most jurisdictions, the COVID-19 pandemic will change the ways schools operate in both the short and long term.

What is the ‘new normal’ for schools?

What are the key risks, both operational and strategic, for schools right now?

What areas should schools focus on in order to maintain high standards of governance, risk management and compliance?

This resource provides schools with a risk management perspective on the many changes and challenges that schools face now and into the future.

Many schools have requested information and commentary in relation to risk and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools, and many are querying what changes they should be making to their risk registers.

As a result of our engagement with schools around the country, we have developed a list of the ‘Top Six Operational Risks’ and the ‘Top Six Strategic Risks’ for what many are calling the ‘new normal’ of the post COVID-19 environment.

The content in this page will be not be static because the ‘new normal’ is not static. New risks will be added so that the ‘Top Six’ may become the ‘Top Ten’ over time. Risks that are on the list now will be reviewed and updated as new developments and new perspectives emerge, and some may drop off the list.

We invite your commentary and feedback on these risks for schools. Simply click here to send us your thoughts.

You can read this briefing online or request a PDF of the paper by clicking the button below.

Download Your PDF Copy

Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools in 2020

How You Might Use This Resource


Three ways your School can use this Resource:

1. Create a Specific Risk Register for the Management of these Risks for Schools

You might want to integrate these risks with your school’s current strategic and operational risk registers. Alternatively, you could create a school specific risk register that includes some or all of the risks that are noted under each risk category in this resource. We have published these risks and accompanying action checklists as a downloadable Word document for your convenience (see below). What to call it? “2020 COVID-19 Risk Register” perhaps? These registers could be used to focus school leadership on these specific risks and on the implementation of controls to manage these risks.

Many risk controls may already be in place at the school, so it is therefore essential to start by evaluating the effectiveness of the current controls in place to manage each risk.

For example, if there is already a student pastoral care program in place, check whether it is properly addressing increased levels of student stress and anxiety. After reviewing the effectiveness of the current controls, the next step is to plot the likelihood and consequence to obtain a risk rating. After rating each risk, the school leadership should consider what additional controls or ‘risk treatments’ may be required. It is a cyclical, continuous improvement process so that once the risk treatments or additional controls are implemented, a further review of the risks and the effectiveness of the risk controls for each risk should be undertaken regularly, for instance every two or three months.

2. Create a Checklist

Create a checklist of key actions to be undertaken that can be reviewed by the school leadership team every few months. This will focus the discussion and decision-making of the school leadership team in relation to these risks to assist in identifying problems and finding solutions.

We have included an Action Checklist for each of the operational and strategic risks below. We have published these action checklists (as well as the list of risks) as a downloadable Word document for your convenience (see below).

3. Issues Summary and Action Plan Communicated to School Staff and the School Board

Provide a short summary of the issues related to the risks noted in this resource to alert the school board and school staff and increase their awareness of these issues. At the same time, you could also indicate what additional measures are being implemented to address the issues such as an action plan or something similar.

New call-to-action

Before we dive in


Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools 


Top Six Operational Risks for Schools

1. Looking After Your People - Human Resources Risks

2. Partnering with the Community - Feedback and Complaints Handling Risks

3. Post-Lockdown Child Protection Risks

4. Infection Transmission Risks – Health and Safety for Everyone

5. Student Mental Health Risks – Monitoring and Responding

6. COVID-19 Privacy Act Compliance Risks – What Just Happened?

Top Six Strategic Risks for Schools

1. Business Continuity Risks During a Pandemic

2.  Stakeholder Communications Risks

3. Leadership and Governance Risks

4. Principal Retention Risk

5. Financial Management – Credit Risks

6. Strategic and Operational Planning Risks


Looking After Your People - Human Resources Risks for Schools

Top Six Operational Risks for Schools

The pressure on all school staff has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools return to physical classroom teaching and learning environments and online learning is no longer the teaching delivery mode, there will be pressure of a different kind. There will be pressure on staff to ensure that all infection transmission risk mitigation strategies are being carefully followed around the school and in the classroom. A number of schools have already had to send students home as a result of a positive test from a member of the school community. The stress caused by an actual disruption of this type and by worrying about the possibility of future disruptions is real.

How do we look after our people at this time? Staff are a school’s greatest asset. Some staff may now be thinking of retiring early or taking extended leave. Others may be silently suffering the effects of workplace stress while simultaneously managing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their personal lives. All of this means that many staff may be less resilient and more fragile than in the past when normal routines and familiar structures were in place.


Looking After Your People - Human Resources Risks

  • Failure to have mechanisms to monitor, identify and support staff that may be experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.
  • Failure to provide assistance to staff in the form of counselling and other support services.
  • Failure to identify staff that may be more vulnerable to becoming seriously unwell in the event of infection, then consult with these staff and put in place specific strategies to manage their increased risk.
  • Failure to provide sufficient information to staff in relation to financial and credit risk issues, the possible need for staff cutbacks and other budgetary cost-cutting measures so that staff are confident in the prudent and sensible financial management by the school leadership team.
  • Failure to celebrate and appreciate the extra efforts that staff have made during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensure staff feel valued.
  • Failure to ensure that there are comprehensive, accessible human resources policies available to enable staff to understand workplace entitlements, access grievance procedures and have a good understanding of employer expectations.


Action Checklist for Looking After Your People – Human Resources Risks

  • Review support (supervisory, mentoring, resourcing, IT) provided to school staff and identify gaps such as:
    • Ineffective or insufficient support
    • Individuals or groups that may be missing out
    • Additional support that should be provided to some or all.
  • Ensure that staff are regularly informed and consulted in relation to potential and actual changes that are likely to impact on their working lives.
  • Ensure that feedback from staff is encouraged and that there are both formal and informal mechanisms in place to check in on staff and receive feedback.
  • Ensure that the school leadership team has regular meetings to identify and discuss any staff support issues either related to specific staff or more generally.
  • Ensure that there is regular communication from the school leadership team to staff informing them of the availability of support and counselling services and of opportunities to discuss any issues or concerns that they may have with the school’s leadership.
  • Ensure that HR policies are accessible and provide clarity for staff in relation to any policy issues.
  • Ensure that there is regular communication with staff where budgetary pressures may lead to program cuts, staff redundancies or other cost cutting measures.
  • Ensure that staff receive training and information in key areas such as stress management, supporting staff (especially for managers), accessing external support and counselling services, reporting concerns and changes to their personal or home circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home guidelines including WFH health and safety requirements.


Partnering with the Community - Feedback and Complaints Handling Risks for Schools

Top Six Operational Risk for Schools

All schools actively seek to promote closer and more effective relationships between themselves, their students, and students’ families (or at least they should). Schools and families partnering together in a child’s learning journey can only enhance the quality of learning that takes place. There may be a substantial shift occurring towards an even more open and collaborative partnership between parents and schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the features of this new partnership are:

  • Schools welcoming feedback and complaints from parents and the community.
  • Schools regularly communicating with parents in response to issues raised by parents.
  • The development of open and transparent systems for the giving of feedback and making complaints.
  • School staff being encouraged to seek parent feedback and directing parents to relevant school policies and procedures to lodge more formal feedback and, where necessary, complaints.


As schools adjust their operations and introduce new processes, it’s vital that schools gather as much feedback as possible from the school community. Many parents and caregivers will have plenty of valuable feedback to share, and some will have complaints that should be followed up appropriately.

There are many benefits to schools inviting feedback, including complaints, from their parents and communities, including:

  • Increasing parent and community confidence in the school.
  • Providing the school with the opportunity to deal with issues that have arisen from the many changes to school operations.
  • Protecting students by providing a secure, accessible, and child-safe process for lodging complaints.
  • Enabling schools to develop and maintain a culture of continuous improvement.
  • Increasing staff confidence in the feedback and complaints systems and procedures in place so that they can confidently direct parents to these.


Many schools might not yet have an effective system in place to manage feedback or complaints. This is a great opportunity to move away from informal and ‘ad hoc’ complaints handling and feedback processes and develop a structured, policy-driven and transparent approach that includes detailed procedures and comprehensive staff training in complaints handling. This will ensure that complaints and feedback can be dealt with in a timely manner and in a way that gives the parents and the community confidence in the school.


Partnering with the Community - Feedback and Complaints Handling Risks for Schools

  • Failure to establish systems and procedures to effectively manage complaints and feedback from parents and the wider community in a structured, timely and consistent manner.
  • Failure to effectively promote, to key stakeholders including parents and students, details of how to lodge complaints and/or provide feedback.
  • Failure to support and train staff in dealing with feedback and complaints from parents, so that staff are not exposed to further, more difficult conversations.


Action Checklist for Feedback and Complaints Handling for Schools

  • Review the current mechanisms for dealing with feedback and complaints from the school community by asking questions such as:
    • Is our complaints handling process clearly communicated and publicly available?
    • Are our current processes adequately promoted, accessible and child-safe?
    • Have our staff received training as to how to manage a complaint received verbally?
    • Have we appointed a senior manager with responsibility for ensuring that our complaints handling processes are working in practice?
    • Does our leadership team (and our board) receive regular reports as to complaints and feedback received within the school?
  • Remind staff of the importance of receiving feedback and complaints.
  • Remind staff of the processes to follow when they receive feedback and complaints from students, parents and the community.

Additional Privacy Resources

> Briefing Paper: Complaints Handling in Non-Government


Post-Lockdown Child Protection Risks

Top Six Operational Risk for Schools

As lockdowns were enforced across Australia earlier in the year, schools were required to adapt to a remote teaching environment. It is clear that there was an increase in the vulnerability of children to abuse and harm while confined to their homes. There was also a general increase in the number of vulnerable children as household stressors impacted more families. These same issues arise again in Victoria now that it goes into another period of lockdown. Whether other states and territories will have another period of lockdown is currently unknown.

Remote learning meant that schools could no longer directly oversee these vulnerable students for six hours every day. Schools perform a vital role in picking up on physical and behavioural signs of abuse and neglect and this became more difficult, if not impossible, during the lockdown. For more information refer to Keeping the Safety Net Intact – Child Protection in a Remote Learning Environment.

Unfortunately, the return to school may not have changed the level of risk and vulnerability that children experience away from school. Students will still be in situations of increased vulnerability at home due to job losses, the economic downturn, parents working from home, financial pressures, and limited social and recreational activities. All of these would suggest that schools may see an increase in students who need care, support and, in some cases, children where mandatory reporting obligations will be triggered.

Children generally are only able to disclose concerns about their safety, or that of their peers, to people they trust – this could be anyone at a school, including counsellors, coaches, tutors, former teachers and non-teaching staff, or even their friends. As students return to the school grounds it is likely that they will use the opportunity to disclose concerns about their safety.

More than ever, schools will need to ensure their staff are trained to look out for, and lodge reports with respect to, students who are at risk of harm.


Post-Lockdown Child Protection Risks for Schools

  • Failure to establish and effectively implement policies and procedures within the school to ensure that the school meets its legal and regulatory obligations in relation to child protection (including working with children checks, mandatory reporting and reportable conduct, where relevant).
  • Failure to ensure that staff receive training and are aware of the ongoing increased vulnerability of some students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Failure to monitor, and, where necessary, lodge to relevant authorities in accordance with state and territory child protection laws reports with respect to at risk students.



Action Checklist for Child Protection Risks in Schools

  • Ensure that staff are aware of the issues surrounding the increased potential vulnerability of students during the period of lockdown due to domestic violence and increased stress on households due to job losses, the economic downturn, parents working from home, and financial pressures.
  • Ensure that staff are trained with respect to key indicators of children who may be at risk of harm.
  • Ensure that staff are aware of the increased potential for disclosure by students of concerns about their safety as face-to face-teaching resumes and that staff are actively encouraged to report any concerns in relation to students.


Infection Transmission Risks – Health and safety for Everyone in Schools

Top Six Operational Risks for Schools

The workplace hazard related to COVID-19 might be described as an ‘infection transmission hazard’. All workplaces have a duty under health and safety laws to prevent harm to workers and any other persons who may be impacted by their operations and to maintain a safe working environment. This requires hazards to be identified and all steps taken, in so far as they are reasonably practicable, to control and minimise the risks to health and safety posed by the hazard. Schools that already have a detailed health and safety management program, with comprehensive policies and staff training in health and safety will have an easier task than those schools that have only rudimentary policies and limited training in place.

Identifying the infection transmission hazard is the first step. Health and safety legislation requires schools to undertake a detailed assessment of the risk of infection transmission related to all schools activities, facilities and procedures – in short, everything that the school does. This is a large and potentially daunting task.

In addition, vulnerable students and staff may need to have specific risk mitigation strategies in place. For some, that might mean staying at home for the time being in order to minimise the risk of infection. Student health care plans should be updated to ensure that they address COVID-19 infection transmission risks and procedures.

These additional requirements to deal with the infection transmission hazard are on top of the usual school activities. The burden to fulfil these requirements will fall heavily on some school staff, particularly the school leadership team.

One requirement for all schools will be to develop a plan for evacuating the school in the event of a positive test. This should be a detailed plan that ensures that infection transmission prevention measures are maintained during this process. All staff should be made aware of this plan and the role they will need to play in supervising this process and what will happen while the school is closed and cleaned.

For a detailed discussion of these issues read this School Governance article:

Transmission of COVID-19 in Schools – Health and Safety Law Requirements 


Infection Transmission Risks – Health and Safety for Everyone in Schools

  • Failure to take all steps that are reasonably practicable to reduce COVID-19 infection transmission in the school community.
  • Failure to communicate and train staff and students in the new procedures and systems put in place to minimise infection transmission risks and respond to any positive tests.
  • Failure to communicate with parents as to new procedures and other new measures in place to minimise infection transmission risk and school procedures to respond to any positive tests within the school community.
  • Failure to monitor and enforce compliance by the entire school community with the new procedures and measures in place to minimise infection transmission risk.
  • Failure to consult with all key stakeholders in relation to the identification and control of the COVID-19 infection transmission risks in school operations.
  • Failure to properly resource, effectively implement, manage and review the effectiveness of the COVID-19 infection transmission risk management controls that have been identified.


Action Checklist for Infection Transmission Risks in Schools

  • Train staff in infection control procedures.
  • Consult with staff regularly on the infection control procedures in place and where changes to the procedures are proposed.
  • Encourage staff feedback where there is a breakdown in controls or an absence of controls is identified.
  • Ensure that staff understand the need to actively monitor and enforce the infection control procedures.
  • Communicate with parents and stakeholders about the procedures in place for infection control.


Student Mental Health Risks – Monitoring and Responding

Top Six Operational Risks for Schools

For some students the year of the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for the time spent at home and the fun break from the way school normally operates. But for many others it will be a year that they would rather forget.

A report in the SMH 28 May 2020 highlighted the youth mental health challenges many students have faced during lockdown and are continuing to deal with. The report stated that Kids Helpline received over 9000 calls in March or one every minute. In mid-April UNICEF Australia surveyed over 1000 young people on how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting them. The report, titled “Living in Limbo”, found that almost half of the young people surveyed said that the COVID-19 pandemic had increased stress and anxiety:


Australia’s young people have been cut off from social support networks, must complete major education milestones online, and are also impacted by job losses, either themselves or their parents and carers. All of this is taking a toll on their mental health and their hope for the future.”


The survey showed a decline in young people’s ability to cope since the beginning of 2020. Nearly all young people said their education had been disrupted or had stopped. Less than 40 per cent of those surveyed had a good idea of how to access psychological support services and around 25 per cent felt isolated and unsure about support options.

A recent ABC News article on the stress experienced by students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted:

  • Increased worries about the future and increased anxiety due to changes to learning and assessments
  • Concern and anxiety that marks will be below their expectations due to the disruption to normal learning
  • Increased suicidal thoughts and instances of self-harm
  • Much greater demand for community support services for young people especially students under 16 who are not feeling safe at home.


Many students will need close monitoring and extra care and support during this time. Some of the stressors for students have included:

  • Disruptions to study including changes to assessments and study patterns.
  • Anxiety over the impact on school results especially on ATAR scores and future study plans
  • Anxiety for their future including post school study and employment prospects due to the economic downturn
  • Lack of regular contact with friends
  • Lack of daily school structures and routines
  • Unhealthy and unsafe home environments
  • Loss or drop in family income
  • Ceasing social and sporting activities outside of school and cessation of school sport and extra-curricular activities.


In addition, Asian students may be concerned about xenophobic, racist, or bullying behaviour that may be directed towards them on their return to school. Some bullying behaviour of Chinese or Asian students had been reported by some parents in a small number of schools when the COVID-19 virus first appeared in Australia in February/March. Schools can take steps to ameliorate the adverse effects on the individuals who have been the targets of the bullies by communicating with them as clearly and supportively as possible and by offering to support the students with more than just platitudes or assurances that they will not be targeted. Learn more about this in the School Governance article, Racism in Schools in the Era of COVID-19. 

Many schools will need to increase their support and assistance to students and perhaps adjust their emphasis from academics to greater levels of support and care for students showing signs of stress and anxiety. Schools will need to consider what they can do to reduce stress and anxiety for all students. This might be additional student counselling and support services and other activities and programs aimed at reducing stress and anxiety. All final year students may suffer additional disappointment when many of the fixed events and celebrations that are a feature of the final year of schooling are modified or cancelled.

A further issue related to this is the increased anxiety and stress where a school must send all students home for a period of time due to a positive COVID-19 test result at the school. For some students where they have had close contact with the person that tested positive, they may be required to stay away from school for a period of isolation. The possibility of starting regular face-to-face learning and important social interactions with their peers, and then having to stop again, will be very difficult for some students.

Read more about this in the School Governance article, Student Mental Health – an Operational Risk ‘During COVID-19’. 


Student Mental Health Risks – Monitoring and Responding

  • Failure to establish and effectively implement a comprehensive suite of policies and procedures designed to protect students from foreseeable risks of harm to meet the school’s student duty of care obligations in dealing with student welfare and mental health.
  • Failure to effectively implement monitoring and support services for students suffering from anxiety and stress and related mental health issues.
  • Failure to provide sufficient support and assistance to students who are concerned for their safety and wellbeing at home.
  • Failure to provide a range of school programs and initiatives to support all students in dealing with the stresses and anxieties associated with COVID-19 pandemic disruptions to their learning.


Action Checklist for Student Mental Health Risks

  • Review current student pastoral care, support and counselling services as to their general effectiveness and also whether the current support is sufficient for dealing with increased levels of anxiety and stress in students.
  • Ensure that there are clear, timely and frequent communications to students and parents in relation to changes in assessments and examinations.
  • Consider and implement where necessary additional programs to support student cohorts suffering from stress and anxiety.
  • Ensure that feedback and complaints mechanisms are available to students, especially those in senior years, and their parents.
  • Ensure that staff are trained with respect to any changes in support services for students.


COVID-19 Privacy Act Compliance Risks – What Just Happened?

Top Six Operational Risks for Schools

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new privacy risks for schools and increased the possibility of breaches of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) occurring. While schools’ immediate attention has been focused on other COVID-19 pandemic-related issues, some will have failed to consider a number of Privacy Act compliance issues.

One concern is the information that may be still accessible at teachers’ homes that should now be returned to school given that, with the exception of second wave lockdowns, schools have returned to face-to-face teaching. A great deal of information may have been accessed by teachers while they were undertaking online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Some of this information may have been printed or downloaded and stored on portable storage devices or on home computers. This information should be returned to the school or securely destroyed. Staff will need to be given clear directions about what to do with this information. Some information will require secure destruction rather than just being placed in household paper recycling systems. Other information may be stored on home computers or on thumb drives or other portable storage devices and should be removed permanently so that it can no longer be accessed. School IT departments may need to assist with this.

Schools may need to carefully check that staff computers do not contain viruses and malware due to the increased incidence of cyber security breaches that have been widely reported during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has, in part, been a result of the much wider ‘digital footprint’ for all organisations, not just schools, due to everyone logging in to servers and accessing information from remote locations.

Other privacy compliance issues to consider are:

  • What personal information should staff and students disclose to the school community if they test positive to COVID-19?
  • Do the educational technology tools, such as Google classrooms and Zoom, present additional avenues for personal information to be accidentally or maliciously disclosed?
  • What personal information including sensitive personal information may already have been disclosed to other students or parents during the period of online learning?
  • Are staff aware and have they been trained in privacy compliance obligations?
  • Does a lack of information and training increase the risk that staff will unwittingly disclose the personal information of other students that should have been kept confidential?


COVID-19 Pandemic Privacy Act Compliance Risks – What Just Happened?

  • Failure to manage the personal information of individuals (including current, prospective and former students and their parents/carers) in accordance with the 13 Australian Privacy Principles.
  • Failure to identify personal information that staff may have held during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and to ensure that any personal information, including sensitive personal information is returned to the school or securely destroyed and not retained in any form at staff homes or on staff home computers and storage devices.
  • Failure to train staff as to the requirements of the 13 Australian Privacy Principles and the school procedures in place to comply with the Principles including the school Privacy Act compliance procedures that apply in situations of home isolation and online teaching from home.
  • Failure to review all elements of the school’s online learning environment to ensure that any online safety, data security and Privacy Act compliance issues are identified and measures put in place to prevent non-compliance should there be further periods of online learning and home isolation.


Action Checklist for Privacy Act Compliance Risks for Schools

  • Ensure that staff are trained in their obligations under the Privacy Act and Australian Privacy Principles.
  • Ensure that staff are advised to identify and return to school any personal information held at their homes and destroy any personal information held in personal and home computers and storage devices as directed by the school.
  • Review and update school privacy policies to ensure that they adequately cover privacy, data security and related issues arising in online learning environments.


Additional Privacy Resources

> School Governance article – A School’s Privacy Obligations During the COVID-19 Pandemic
> OAIC - Coronavirus (COVID-19): Understanding your privacy obligations to your staff
> CompliSpace White Paper Schools, Privacy and the Australian Privacy Principles October 2019


New call-to-action


Business Continuity Risks for Schools in a Pandemic

Top Six Strategic Risks for Schools in 2020

There are many events that have the potential to significantly disrupt the normal business functions of an organisation. These events can collectively be referred to as risks to business continuity. The challenge for any organisation is to develop a comprehensive business continuity plan (BCP) to support and enable the business to maintain normal business functions in the event of material business disruption.

A school’s hard-won reputation can quickly diminish if responses to critical incidents and natural disasters are badly handled and chaotic. A comprehensive BCP is designed to enable a systematic and planned response to any threats to business continuity

Business continuity planning should involve consideration of both the likelihood and the consequences associated with the many risks that threaten business continuity. Organisations should consider what steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of a risk to business continuity occurring and, if the risk does materialise, what steps can be taken to reduce the consequences or impacts on business continuity. These should be included in a documented BCP.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools already had well developed BCPs and those that didn’t probably wished that they did. However, even schools with a BCP probably found that the plan did not adequately account for the scale and complexity of the interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – and it’s not over yet. Many BCPs did not identify a global pandemic as a source of business interruption and, even where it was included as a source of interruption, the BCPs often did not foresee what has so far occurred in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just because most students have returned to school face-to-face learning does not eliminate the need for careful ongoing business continuity planning to address further outbreaks and positive tests within the school or local community, further periods of lockdown such as we are currently seeing in Victoria, and the possibility that some schools may have a substantial period of lockdown if they become a COVID-19 pandemic ‘hotspot’.

While schools will generally have retained the support of their communities while negotiating the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic those same school communities are unlikely to continue to support their schools should there be any major mistakes and missteps in relation to any further lockdowns.

In the same way that lockdown and evacuation drills are undertaken, staff should be given the opportunity to upskill and practise for situations where they will be called upon to remain a calming presence. The most likely scenario where this calming presence will be needed is if there is a positive test result within the school requiring immediate closure of the school to all personnel to allow for contact tracing and cleaning.


Business Continuity Risks for Schools During a Pandemic

  • Failure to implement and maintain a BCP appropriate to the size, nature and level of complexity of the school taking into account interruption to the workforce and a continuous learning environment.
  • Failure to have systems, policies, resources, and procedures in place, (in areas including work, health and safety, student and staff welfare, human resources, child protection, financial management etc), to substantially avoid major impacts to health and safety, business continuity and financial viability from a global pandemic that substantially impacts the Australian population.


Action Checklist for Business Continuity Risks for Schools During a Pandemic

  • Develop or update and review your current BCP to ensure that it provides a systematic and planned response to any recurring threats to business continuity from COVID-19 and any future pandemics.
  • Conduct a thorough review of the business continuity response to the current COVID-19 pandemic to identify gaps and failures, new systems, new policies and procedures and additional financial management procedures that may be necessary to better support continuity of business.


Additional Resources

> School Governance Article Business Continuity Risk and COVID-19

> School Governance Article: School Supply Chains - Will Your School Have All it Needs


Key Stakeholder Communications Risks for Schools

Top Six Strategic Risks for Schools

During the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders have been required to ensure that they communicate regularly and effectively with staff, students, parents and stakeholders. There has been no precedent for this and no manual to draw on as to how to do this. It is a significant ongoing challenge to get the communications right.

In ‘getting it right’, issues that have had to be considered include:

Cadence – how frequently should we communicate so that information is provided when it is needed, and the school community are not left waiting for answers?

Modes – how can we provide information quickly and effectively? This may require multiple modes of delivery such as emails and using social media and school websites.

Controlling the messaging – perhaps most critically the information provided must only be provided by those with authority to communicate – no leaks by staff and no staff communicating when they are not authorised to do so.

Tone – what is the right tone and language to communicate? This is often just as important as what is communicated.

Content – Like tone, how can we communicate in a way that inspires confidence and reduces stress and anxiety? The content must demonstrate an understanding of what is happening, particularly the challenges faced by students, parents and staff and provide a way forward. There is little point demonstrating an understanding of the problem without providing some positive messaging about how the school is responding.

In a situation such as the COVID 19 pandemic, staff, students and the school community have been looking to their children’s school for more explicit direction and leadership when, in other situations, they may not need this to the same extent.


Stakeholder Communications Risks for Schools

  • Failure to implement effective ongoing systems, procedures and strategies, that ensure clear, relevant, timely and trustworthy communications with key stakeholders.
  • Failure to ensure that information being communicated to stakeholders is up to date and does not lag behind information available from other sources.
  • Failure to ensure that staff follow the school’s protocols in relation to both who is authorised to communicate to stakeholders and the maintaining of confidentiality.
  • Failure to ensure that modes of communication enable all members of the school community to receive communications from the school.


Action Checklist for Stakeholder Communication Risks for Schools

  • Review communications strategy in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic to date and identify any problems and issues that have arisen.
  • Consult with key representatives from key stakeholders to obtain feedback on communications and areas for further improvement both in content and delivery methods.

Review communications and media policies to ensure that there are clear guidelines as to who is authorised to speak to stakeholders and the media and ensure that staff understand these policies.


Leadership and Governance Risk for Schools

Top Six Strategic Risks for Schools

One of the ongoing challenges for the next few years will be maintaining and sustaining a leadership team that can effectively deal with whatever lies ahead.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, school principals and school boards have found out a lot about the abilities and shortcomings of their school leadership teams. The entire school community has been looking for calm and decisive leadership and for leaders to be able to communicate a clear plan for school for the next week, the next month, the next term and the next year. They also expect their school leaders to be agile and to quickly and effectively communicate any changes.

From a governance perspective, school boards have been required to provide ongoing support for the school leadership team and, in some cases, participate in key decision- making. Boards have also needed to maintain good standards of governance including ensuring that decisions at meetings held remotely are recorded and the usual requirements for quorums, voting, receiving reports and decision-making are not significantly disrupted by meeting remotely. While these ‘normal’ board practices may have continued, there has also been the need for boards to deal with the pressing issues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant in some cases the holding of extra meetings at short notice to deal with urgent issues, additional agenda items and reports and contingency planning for board members and members of the school’s senior leadership team if they were to become ill.

Another aspect of good governance in a pandemic is to ensure that the board is able to adequately support the school leadership in an environment where the leadership is under enormous stress.


Leadership and Governance Risks for Schools

  • Failure to maintain governance standards in remote meeting environments that enable effective decision-making in relation to critical issues as they arise but at the same time support board governance ‘business as usual’ practices.
  • Failure to develop, support and provide resources to the school leadership team so that it:
  • is able to leverage the expertise and experience of the whole team
  • can function effectively in decision-making and planning
  • can make rapid changes to plans when required
  • distributes the leadership and decision-making load across the team
  • is sustainable and durable.


Action Checklist for Leadership and Governance Risks for Schools

  • Review the needs of the school leadership group concerning support, training and sustainability.
  • Review the performance of the leadership group over the last five months and identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • Identify and implement any additional requirements needed to support, train, ensure sustainability and provide extra resourcing that the leadership group requires.


Additional Resources

> School Governance article – COVID-19 and the Risk of Leadership Change

> Governance, Risk and Compliance Professional Learning for School Governors, Boards and Leaders, including NESA accredited Responsible Persons training for NSW. Click here to see the learning item topics. Click here to request a proposal. 


Principal Retention Risk for Schools

Top Strategic Risks for Schools

Some may be surprised that this issue is being discussed in a series on key risks where most if not all are related to schools surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. There is however potentially a strong link between the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and this risk. Anecdotally, many school principals that are closing in on retirement are considering bringing their retirement forward due to the stresses and added pressures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Educator (January 2019), 70 percent of the current 10,000 Australian principals are eligible to retire in the next five years. Since then, principals and key leadership personnel face burnout as a result of dealing with prolonged COVID-19 pandemic-related stressors. Schools must have succession plans in place as well as short term strategies to replace key staff members due to illness.

In 2018, Associate Professor Phillip Riley of the Australian Catholic University noted: "The demands of principals’ jobs are seriously out of balance with the diminishing support resources available to them. Increasing bureaucracy and government accountability has significantly eroded principals’ decision latitude to deal with their work demands, further increasing the strain. Primary occupational health and safety interventions are needed to relieve principals from some of their job demands and increase their job resources. However, principals’ increased need for systemic support and resources to deal with the challenges is occurring alongside severe cuts to education budgets, and is potentially placing the future of our children’s education at risk."

In 2016 Michael Willis (Company Director- Effective Governance) wrote the following article in School Governance, The Cost of Losing a School Principal and How to Save Your School the Pain.

The imminent retirement of a long-standing principal is a very clear strategic risk for school boards. Boards need to plan for succession and they should have well thought out policies and procedures in place to mitigate this high level risk or they may then have a succession of new principals over a short period of time. This, in turn, could lead to high staff turnover and a destabilising effect on the school’s reputation.

Indicators of reputation risk can be wide and varying, often coming from outside of the norm. So, we need to ask the question, “Is this an uncertainty that would impact on the school’s objective of having a positive reputation in the community and being held in high regard and esteem by that community?”


Principal Retention Risk for Schools

  • Failure to develop and effectively implement succession plans to manage the retirement or resignation of school executive staff and the principal.
  • Failure to ensure leadership initiatives and development programs are implemented for the continuing development of the leadership skills of school executive staff to enable them to confidently and competently act in senior leadership roles when there are short or long term vacancies.


Action Checklist for Principal Retention Risk for Schools

  • Develop succession plans that provide a roadmap for the development of senior leaders from within the school.
  • Develop or review and update existing board policies in relation to the appointment of a new principal.
  • Provide ongoing opportunities for senior staff to participate in leadership mentoring programs and training in leadership development, school governance, risk and compliance.
  • Review plans and identify suitable senior staff who are able to act in more senior roles in the event of short or long term vacancies in the leadership team.


Additional Resources from School Governance articles

> The School Leadership Retention Risk in a Pandemic Era

> How Can We Attract and Retain Quality School Principals when 70 per cent May Retire in the next Five Years? (Part One)


Financial Management – Credit Risks for Schools

Top Six Strategic Risks for School

Many families within the school community have been and continue to be affected by the economic changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to impact their ability to pay fees both in the short and long term which will in turn impact a school’s recurrent income. Additionally, the income that a school would typically generate from other sources such as financial investments, events, donations, leasing of halls, boarding services etc, will be less than budgeted for.

As fixed expenditure such as utility bills, rent, insurance, debt repayments, and any contractual obligations such as staff contracts, staff entitlements, and memberships will probably not change, many schools will find that their cashflow will become impacted, and they will be forced to take on debt, make staff cuts and make cuts to services and programs. In addition, schools will not have budgeted for previously unknown ongoing expenditure. For example, there will be substantial increases in costs associated with the ongoing cleaning of classrooms, facilities and playground equipment, with indicators that this is generally costing at least $18,000 per month, even for smaller schools.

The long-term economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not yet known, other than that there will most likely be a recession of some sort.

Schools will be reviewing enrolment forecasts and ensuring that their budget processes have contingencies for an expected reduction in enrolment income and a reduction in per capita government funding due to the loss of enrolments. Schools will need to review their policies regarding discounts and fee relief and how to manage parents facing difficulties in paying school fees.

Initiatives to assist families facing financial hardship usually include one-off discounts, bursaries, deferred payment plans etc. Decisions made in this regard should be fair and transparent and be policy based and not discretionary. Records of decisions should be maintained and be available for review. In some cases, the school’s policies for dealing with parents suffering financial hardship should be reviewed and approved by the school board.

Many schools will be actively engaging in scenario planning and using all available information to model the expected financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the school. This will assist the school to identify its financial strengths and weaknesses, determine what types of levers it can pull to best respond to the changing environment, and make informed decisions about what strategies to offer to its communities to support them during this time in line with their values.

For example, can the school afford to offer fee reductions for struggling families, or will it need to adopt a debt management strategy? Can the school continue to pay fixed term contracts, or will it need to explore escape clauses to deal with cash flow issues? Finally, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will no doubt impact every organisation’s performance against its 2020 budget and strategic plans. These documents will need to be reviewed and updated.


Financial Management – Credit Risks for Schools

  • Financial reporting received by the school’s governing body is inadequate to allow individual members to effectively monitor the school's actual and forecast financial performance against the school's strategic plan and predicted future enrolment trends and income and expenditure.
  • Failure to ensure decision-making regarding fee relief to parents experiencing financial hardship are policy based, fair and transparent.
  • Failure to ensure enrolment forecasts and future income projections are reviewed in the light of a significant downturn in the national and international economy.


Action Checklist for Financial Management - Credit Risks for Schools

  • Review the financial reporting documents provided to the board and board committees and identify and implement new reporting and forecasting reports where required.
  • Review current policies and practices regarding the provision of fee relief to parents to ensure that policies are fair and consistently applied and records are kept of decisions and reasons for decision, and where required, provide any updated policies to the school board for review.
  • Review and update enrolment forecasting for future years and the methodology for determining the forecast enrolments in the light of a possible substantial economic downturn and recession in the next one to three years


Strategic and Operational Planning Risks

Top Six Strategic Risks for Schools

Many schools will be reviewing their strategic plans in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic may cause a drop in school income over the next few years and that drop may be substantial for some schools. For others it will be more of a ‘hiccup’ and perhaps cause a delay in the implementation of some programs or tighter budgeting. Even if there were no economic impacts on schools, strategic plans will need to be reviewed due to the wide variety of issues that have surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic that will require careful consideration.


New Ways of Working for Schools During a Pandemic

What are the ‘new ways of working’ for schools as result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Many businesses are reviewing the way that they currently operate and make decisions both short and long term as to how the business will operate in the future. This includes providing a much greater degree of flexibility as to start and finish times, having much greater numbers of employees working from home, reviewing office space requirements, reviewing the geography of offices, factories and other business premises to determine what changes are required to meet possible long term requirements for increased personal hygiene and sanitation, personal distancing, use of kitchens and bathrooms etc. Should schools be undertaking similar sorts of review processes? Some of the questions for schools to consider are outlined below.


School Buildings and Facilities

  • Will there be a review of current facilities to identify minor or major building works that better support the new hygiene, sanitation and personal distancing requirements?
  • Do classrooms need to be much bigger and have more space between desks and better ventilation? Should this be a short or long term consideration?
  • Will the COVID-19 pandemic have a profound impact on the ways all work spaces including classrooms are designed in the future?
  • Like in relation to cruise ships, have we been forced to accept that many of the small and crowded spaces in schools have higher levels of infection risks than we could have imagined prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?


Excursions Tours and Events

  • Are the current risk assessments undertaken by schools with respect to excursions adequate?
  • Do schools need to review the need for large gatherings and the venues used for these?
  • What will the ‘new normal’ be for excursions, tours and other events?
  • How long might it be before overseas excursions will resume and how will schools manage the new infection transmission risks associated with these?
  • Is this only a short term issue or will there be longer term implications as to how activities and are organised and run and who will be allowed to attend?


IT Resources and Existing Staff Capacity

  • Does critical IT infrastructure need to be reviewed and expenditure re-prioritised to ensure that there are optimal systems available to maintain teaching as usual in online learning and lockdown scenarios?
  • Will schools need to upgrade their IT infrastructure to allow for some students to attend classes online in real time while others are attending face-to-face?
  • Should there be an audit of staff training and staff skills to ensure that there are sufficiently well-trained staff to lead and manage the processes involved in online learning and in supporting other teachers in this?
  • Are there sufficient skills within the current staff to lead others in online teaching, including experienced teachers and IT specialists?
  • Is an investment in new software, an increase in the internet ‘pipeline’ into the school and IT platforms required to enhance delivery of online learning?


Strategic and Operational Planning Risks for Schools

  • Failure to review strategic plans in the light of the changed circumstance brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Failure to review buildings and facilities to identify changes and modifications that may be required to reduce the risk of infection transmission.
  • Failure to plan for and effectively implement changes to excursions and incursions to ensure that they meet ongoing requirements to reduce risk of infection transmission.
  • Failure to review the IT infrastructure and resources and prioritise expenditure to enhance the delivery of teaching online and mixed online and face-to-face teaching.
  • Failure to review staff training and skills to enable an increase in overall skills in the use of technology in teaching.


Action Checklist for Strategic and Operational Planning Risks for Schools

  • Review the current strategic plan and identify objectives that should be subject to review in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and possible economic downturn.
  • Review long term plans and programs across the entire school that may be adversely impacted by the economic downturn, the ongoing pandemic and any logistical challenges and infection control measures that will require the plans to be changed or modified.
  • Review the IT infrastructure of the school to ensure that it provides a sustainable long term platform for effective online learning in addition to traditional face-to-face learning.
  • Identify gaps in staff online learning skills and teaching methods and in the use of IT for remote learning and provide staff training in these areas.


Additional Resources for Schools

Webinar - Risk PageCompliSpace presented a series of webinars about excursion risk management in April, May and June 2020. Click here to learn more and access the recordings.


New call-to-action

Bonus Resources

When schools first moved to remote learning in April, CompliSpace produced and shared several resources for schools including:

  • Working from Home resources – including a policy, checklist and a Working from Home Guide
  • Professional learning from UNE on Teaching Remotely
  • Professional learning on COVID-19

To learn more and request any of these resources click here: COVID-19 Resources for Schools 

About CompliSpace

CompliSpace is a leading provider of Governance, Risk, Compliance and Policy (GRC&P) programs and consulting services for schools. We work with over 650 non-government schools across every jurisdiction in Australia. Through our school clients, we help over 500,000 students, 50,000 teachers, and over 1 million parents and carers around Australia, by enabling non-government schools to meet their legal and regulatory obligations and to manage risk, compliance, policies, excursions and staff professional development in critical areas including school registration, human resources management, work health and safety, student duty of care, privacy, child protection, whistleblower, boarding and overseas students.

CompliSpace also publishes School Governance, the Australian school sector’s leading news and information source on issues related to governance, risk management, compliance and policy management. It’s a weekly newsletter and searchable reference site dedicated to providing unbiased news that relates to the management of schools.

For more information visit or call 1300 132 090.