Getting Policies Off the Page

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A week or so ago I wrote this, on how I’m trying to prioritise and not lose sight on the Most Important Things even when I’m at my busiest. This is hard, and in the same piece I also wrote about what can happen if we lose our grip on the ropes. I called one of the dangers “the tyranny of minutia, and wrote about the lonely, dusty library of handbooks and policies rotting in the mildew damp of Ethiopia’s rainy season that I’d seen in VSO’s Head Office when I was a volunteer there. None of the people who wrote these wanted them to be ignored, and I’m certain those responsible for them believed, or at least had allowed themselves to believe, that these would have a meaningful impact on the universities, schools and colleges in which they worked.

This, of course, is true of many policies in many schools too.

Plenty of policy documents are useless. Languishing on the staff shared area and in bright white ring-binders handed out to all staff at the start of every year and never looked at again unless Ofsted turn up, these pop up at the most unexpected of times. I discovered one school I worked at had a homework policy after more than three years of working there. It made for some reading. Almost two pages (size ten font), and accompanied by a byzantine timetable, it made setting homework seem terrifyingly complicated. Pupils had to record it, so did the teacher, it couldn’t be given on some days, the day it could be given on depended on whether it was “Week A” or “Week B”. There was a flow chart (different fonts, different thicknesses of line) for what to do if a pupil didn’t complete their homework that was so complicated it gave me a headache.

So I stopped reading it, screwed it up and carried on setting homework in exactly the same way I had in more innocent, happier times before I knew there was a policy at all. Nobody noticed or cared.

It was a policy that wasn’t.

But there should have been a policy. As a teacher, guidance on the school’s view on what and how much work children did at home would have been very useful. Written and implemented properly it might also have resulted in more pupils doing it.

This is what this post is about; how do we take a policy off the page (or Z:drive), and turn it into something that has actual impact? I’ve come up with three brief suggestions and, as always, I’d welcome more.

  1. Is the policy workable and sensible?

Quite rightly, policies are often written in calm, quiet moments when pupils aren’t around. While this has clear advantages (less distractions etc), there are problems too. In these moments, it’s difficult to envisage all the day-to-day, minute-by-minute pressures that turn what seems eminently workable into a logistical nightmare. A good example of this might be “teachers must contact parents by text or phone after setting a detention.” To an SLT member, this might feel like a five minute job a couple of times a day. To a teacher on a full timetable, it will look very different. This issue will inevitably meant the policy is not followed; very conscientious (or fearful) staff may try and fail, while others will just completely ignore it, necessitating a whole other complicated policy about what to do if teachers don’t follow policy.

It’s also worth noting that what seems visionary and brave in quiet moments outside school might well look different on a rainy Tuesday in November. If you’re going to begin a policy with something like “At The Academy We Are All Winners!”, then you have to be prepared to say and stand by it at all times.

  1. Is it simple and clear?

My view is that all policies should be written in size twelve font, fit on one side of A4 and preferably written in bullet points. It should be possible for a new staff member to read it in five minutes and know exactly what they should do. Anything longer than this is probably unclear and unwieldy. And unclear, unwieldly policies get ignored.

  1. Has it been (over)communicated?

When we write a policy we are attempting to pull on a big lever because we’re trying to change something that affects everyone in the school community. This means that the policy document is only the starting point; what we’re really aiming for is a change in culture. To do this, we need to talk constantly about it. It needs to be in emails, spoken about to all staff, communicated to pupils and continually re-iterated. The aim should be, eventually, for the document itself to become redundant as the rules, routines and processes become just the way things are done. If SLT find themselves regularly sending emails to staff who aren’t following a policy which contain things like “may I refer you to page 43 of the staff handbook, which contains our policy on aims and objectives”, then at best they are being too reactive. At worst, they may be trying to enforce something that is being ignored for very good reasons.

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