During a career spanning more than 30 years working across the schooling sectors, I’ve come across more than my fair share of good, bad and ugly policies. I recently had the opportunity to pause and reflect on the question of what contributes to good policy development. And by good, I mean effective and efficient policy that actually helps a school navigate decisions and direction consistently with their values, purpose and vision.
Policies as principles of action
Policy is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a course or principles of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual.” The dictionary also lists a further definition as “prudent or expedient conduct or action.” Prudent is noted as “acting or showing care and thought for the future.”
When you look at your school policies do you see the following three characteristics:
· Are they future oriented ?
· Do they show care and thought to your specific circumstances?
· Do they describe clear principles of action?
Let’s be honest – we often find or develop policies that are written poorly in overly complex language, they are too prescriptive, written as a reaction to past events and often adopted from templates in a haphazard manner without the care and thought given to the school’s specific culture and circumstances.
In this article I want to reflect on the lessons I have learned over the years that I hope will help you to develop better policy. The role of a Business professional in a school often incorporates the management of compliance and policy areas. These are important pieces of organisational management and governance that should not be neglected. Well developed policy can enhance a school’s culture and ethos, whereas poorly developed policy can damage it.
12 principles for developing policy
1. Policies need a framework to be efficient and effective
Maybe when you started your role you inherited an existing policy manual, and I’m guessing in lots of instances this wasn’t a streamlined collection of consistently codified documents. Policies tend to be developed on an “as needed” basis and often not developed from a well thought through and understood framework. Policy developed within a framework will be much easier to manage, help users of the policies to find information quickly, and generally provide greater clarity and a more effective and efficient policy experience.
A Policy framework outlines a hierarchy of accountability, interconnecting different types of policy. As we move through the other 11 principles I hope you will see how having a policy framework can revolutionise the way you think about policy development in your school.
2. Policy serves Purpose
All policy needs to operate consistently with the core values, core purpose and vision of the school. The purpose and context of the policy should be included in each policy document, as this helps focus your policy to the needs of the organisation. If this step is not included, it is easy for policy to start to drift an organisation to potentially cause compromise to its values and purpose. In the described framework above, there is a distinction between Purpose and Vision. Purpose is longer term and core to why the school exists, and is often complemented by an inspirational vision statement developed by the current generation of school leadership (Board and Management) for a season. In many schools there is one purpose or vision statement.
3. Know when polices end and guidelines begin
The distinction between policy and guideline is an important factor when you consider what to include in policy documents. Guidelines are great to use when you are trying to describe steps that may change or be impacted by the ever-changing environment of a school, or that cannot be accurately predicted to occur on every occasion. Guidelines are useful to help with implementing policy day to day, however it is important not to confuse guidelines with policy.
4. There’s a difference between governance and operational policy
In a similar way to understanding the difference between policy and guidelines, it is important to understand the difference between a governance policy and an operational policy. In the Resolve Community Governance framework we describe policies as a “sustainer” tool used to strengthen the relationships in the school and help keep the focus on values, purpose and vision. Of note in the diagram are the HOW, WHO, WHY and WHAT sustainers. Governance Policy is an example of policy describing WHY we exist as a School (eg. the Constitution is an example of a WHY policy), WHO holds the authority (Governance policy around the Board’s role and accountabilities for example) and WHAT we will do strategically in collaboration with Management of the School (Strategic Planning is a good example of Governance policy). Operational Policies sit firmly in the HOW zone of the framework – providing policies to ensure the day to day operations of the school remain healthy.
5. Policies are not just about compliance
Policies need to be proactive as well as reactive. Good policy development should encompass both a commitment to operational compliance, as well as proactively setting desired outcomes across all areas of school operations. Boards need to ensure their policy includes proactive statements around how they will operate, committing themselves to setting strategic planning goals, reviewing their own performance and the performance of senior management, and setting strategic intent by describing outcomes and what success looks like for the school as they lead in collaboration with school leadership.
6. Policy isn’t regulation, procedure, and process
A mistake we often see in policy development is the inclusion of regulation, procedure and detailed processes in policy documents. This makes the documents unusually long and hard to engage with, with documents not being clear often around when policy ends and detailed implementation begins. We recommend regulations, procedures and processes be separately documented or referenced within the policy so that the collection of policies is manageable, accurate and able to be distinguished from guidelines and external factors.
7. Policies should be proactively designed not reactively written
Related to the above is the problem that occurs when policies are created in response to a specific situation. Policies are often added as stand alone new policies by default, rather than reviewing existing policies to see if an existing policy covers the area of concern already, or could be modified or added to rather than creating a new, stand alone policy. If this is the culture in your school, you may end up with hundreds of policies that become a collection so detailed no one can find anything. Part of planning a policy framework is breaking up policy into categories or areas of operation.
8. Style, plain English and a concise approach matters
When designing policy for your school, start with a template approach to ensure consistency across all policies. It may lead to more work initially massaging template policies into your format, but will pay dividends in the longer term by streamlining policy and making it easier for end users of the policy to engage with the documents and implement them. We recommend developing a policy classification or style guide for your school that can be applied to all policy writing (both governance and operational). Plain English and using as few words as possible in writing policy is always a good idea.
9. Policies need an owner and a target audience
The identification of the audience to which the policy applies is sometimes missing from the policy document. Policies that are forward facing to parents are a good example. It should be noted clearly in these policies that the intended audience are parents, and who is the owner of the policy in terms of following up any questions relating to the operation of the policy and related guidelines.
10. Policies need a champion
Policies need a champion to “own” the policy development process if they are to be developed consistently and managed well. Policy development in a lot of schools is not in one place, tending to develop in an ad hoc fashion with duplicates popping up if not controlled. Mayhem can result if the policy development process is neglected for long enough so that eventually everyone gives up and someone declares (usually the Principal in the face of a registration visit) that we need to develop a new set from scratch. Make sure policy development school wide have a champion or small group of champions assigned. We have noted that many large schools have a policy and compliance officers and task forces in place to manage this aspect of policy organisation.
11. Policy templates are a two edged sword.
Policy templates are fantastic and we use them with clients all the time! Why reinvent the wheel right? If specialist providers and consultants, other schools and School Associations have blazed a trail already and provided you with some best practice templates to help policy writing, that’s a great resource to tap into to make your policy development journey a lot easier (and faster). However, if you indiscriminately adopt policies as your own without close review to customise them, you risk impacting your schools culture and ethos over the longer term. So by all means use templates, but don’t miss the step of customising them into your consistent template that reflects your school’s context and is consistent with your school’s values.
12. Revisiting and reviewing policies
The final principle of policy development is to review those policies regularly. Develop a schedule of review for your policies and a system (manual or computerised) to track, review and update policies. Different policies need different timeframes for review. Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting the review of policies until you are staring down the barrel of a school educational registration visit in two months time. You will save yourself a lot of anxiety.