Are your school policies a barrier to achieving your vision?


If you are noticing that your staff are looking more stressed, their performance is inconsistent, deadlines are being missed more frequently, parents are complaining more often, staff are asking more questions about “normal” operations or there is a feeling of confusion in a department, then it may be a sign that your policies are not working the way they should be.

Instead of thinking of your policies as rules that must be followed, consider them as the means for communicating your school’s culture, values and vision.

Your policies set out what your staff can expect from the school, what the school expects from them and what the children and parents can expect from you both as an organisation.

Apart from statutory policies, each policy should only exist if its purpose is to clarify and sets out expectations that will move the school towards achieving its vision.

This clarity allows staff to know and understand how they should respond according to the vision and values the school establishes. In a nutshell, policies take the guesswork out of what staff should do. They provide boundaries within which important decisions can be made.

The clarity in the school’s guidelines leads to everyone operating according to the same principles and guidelines. In turn, this creates consistent experiences and processes, both internally among staff and pupils and externally regarding interactions with parents and external agencies.

This is especially true for new employees as clear policies help them learn quickly what is expected of them.

Once you have managed to encapsulate your vision within your policies, there still may be issues. Your policies do not succeed or fail on their own merits but rather on their implementation.

To aid in implementation, procedures need to be put in place. These are distinct from the policies but support staff in carrying out the actions encapsulated within the policies.

The procedures are not boundaries with flexibility but precise instructions for specific routine tasks – think marking and feedback as an obvious example.

It is at this point there is another issue that could arise. Designing procedures for routine tasks that others have to carry out can be problematic.

Policy and procedure design failure results from a number of areas.

  1. Expectations are overly optimistic, whether this in terms of timescales to achieve the vision of the policy or the resources and time required.
  2. There is a poor understanding of the problem and an insufficient understanding of the implementation context.
  3. There is a lack of support for implementation.
  4. There isn’t enough capacity for the procedures to be carried out.

Beware of non-negotiables. Too many prescribed actions will result in at least one of the following – limited creativity, limited capacity or limited enthusiasm for the job – all of which lead to poorer morale in staff.

If procedures are not being followed, ask yourself why? Ask your staff what the problem is? Don’t immediately jump for the big stick, policies should never be set in stone, they are designed to fit your context to achieve the goals that you want to achieve, if these change – so should your policies.

It is because of this focus on your vision that policies that reflect that vision should never be copied from other schools. Borrowing policies that don’t quite fit your vision will compromise it and result in failing to achieve it.

There will always be events or situations that don’t fit in with your policies, these should be an opportunity to review them and discuss the issues that have arisen. This can be avoided to some extent by carrying out a pre-mortem – play the “What if …” game, test your policy to destruction, usually the simplest policies survive.

After all these warnings and caveats, I should add that (and it does feel a little weird saying it) a well-written and well-implemented policy is a beautiful thing.

A good policy increases the capacity of a school, it generates confidence, it creates trust between leadership and staff, staff and children, the school and external agencies. They allow you to achieve your vision by creating a flow within your school that can defy belief.