Reducing the risk, cost and administrative burden of school policy management

Illustration of a person managing staff data

The pitfalls of school policy management

Ensuring that teaching and support staff are aware of the school’s policies and procedures is an important aspect of school management yet some schools, academies and multi-academy trusts are putting themselves, their staff and their students at risk due to the way in which they are managing their policy compliance.

School leaders and governors give great thought and attention to detail in the preparation of school policies to ensure that objectives are achieved, best practice is followed and a safe and rewarding time is had by all. They scrutinise each policy carefully, discussing any barriers to implementation, possible improvements and refining every detail until at last, united in agreement, they approve the policy until its next review date.

Having gone through this painstaking and thorough process you would reasonably expect that there are robust processes in place to ensure that every staff member has read and agreed to the policy and that there is a central record of this agreement and understanding – a reliable and up-to-date record, a safeguard that can be called upon in times of need. However, this is often not the case and where it is the case it is usually flawed and here’s why with the help of a fictional series of events…

Meet James, James is newly qualified and has just found out that he has been successful in his application for a job at his local school. Misty eyed, bunny tailed and full of vigour and excitement he is over the moon and ready to embark on the noble career of teaching, having achieved his dream of being able to improve the life chances of others.

Prior to his arrival James is given a voluminous staff handbook containing great detail about the school including its ethos and values, governance arrangements, day-to-day organisation and the important policies and procedures. Everything he needs to know to get off to a flying start.

After some initial scanning and then detailed review of this interesting information by its new owner the handbook finds itself on the shelf of James’s spare bedroom where it will sit gathering dust until James decides to seek a new position, career path or a cleaner.

The years go by and as each year passes the school’s policies go through the usual process of annual or bi-annual review. New policies are adopted, existing policies are amended and the school continues to move forward by providing high quality learning experiences and outcomes for the children and young people in its care.

It’s all going swimmingly well until one day when a critical incident occurs. A student is badly injured whilst under James’s care. The parents are highly upset and contact the school to find out why this happened and whether adequate procedures had been followed to ensure their daughters safety.

An investigation takes place, James is questioned, details of the situation are scrutinised and to James’s horror he receives notice that he has not followed proper procedure. A diligent and responsible young man James is upset by what has happened, he wasn’t at the top of his game that day but he’s absolutely positive that he followed proper procedure.

Panic stricken he thumbs through the handbook he was given to find the appropriate policy looking for the clauses in section 11, but there is no section 11. He reads the policy again, he’s followed everything to the letter but where’s the guidance that the head teacher is referring to?

Events become protracted and the parents more enraged, they share their story with the local press and seek legal advice with the intention of suing the school for damages.

After some investigation it turns out that James has never been given a copy of the updated policy and has therefore never seen the part of the procedure that should have been followed. Moreover, the school does not have any proof that he actually read and agreed to the original policy let alone the updated version.

Whilst you could argue a degree of professional responsibility and capability, James cannot technically be held accountable as he was unaware of the procedure that should have been followed. The school cannot take action against him as they did not ensure that he read and agreed to the most recent policy, nor can they provide any proof that he had even read or agreed to the original version, something which could prove to be a problem if it ever came to court.

The school’s reputation has been publicly damaged, it faces significant expense which it can barely afford and some aspects of its governance and management practices are now being brought into question as they have no way of demonstrating staff understanding or agreement of key policies.

So where did it all go wrong for James and the school?

Firstly, the school did not ask new staff to sign each policy to say that they have read, understood and agreed to its contents and therefore have no central record of proof.

Secondly, like many other institutions, the school has been updating its policies every year so even if they did ask staff to sign and agree to policies when joining the organisation many of the policies have since changed. This means that any original records of proof held would now be mostly redundant and potentially quite useless in the event of any legal dispute. More importantly, many staff were not completely aware of all of the correct procedures that must be followed which puts the students, themselves and the school at risk.

Further pitfalls and challenges

Schools are very busy places. School leaders, teachers and support staff have to deal with a myriad of pressures and challenges on a daily basis. Even if you placed an updated policy or procedure in every staff member’s pigeon hole for them to sign every time one is adopted or updated some poor soul is going to have to chase every staff member to make sure they are all returned and maintain an up-to-date central record.

They will also need to make sure that staff who are currently off on maternity or away due to illness are not overlooked. They will have to be completely on the ball, constantly making sure that records are 100% correct and maintained. The school may also have staff who are not full time but come in to assist from time-to-time and these people need to be picked up and accounted for too.

We all know how difficult this can be, the reality of managing workloads and how things just slip further and further down our list of tasks as new priorities emerge as the days, weeks and months slip by.

As a school leader what you really want is for this to just happen. For you to be able to quickly and easily view your current policy status at any time and for the process to minimise the workload for support staff whilst ensuring robust compliance. Essentially, you want peace of mind and absolute confidence in the process.

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