School policy compliance: Getting it right for your school

Written by: Nabil Dance | Published:
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How do you prepare school policies that comply with the law? Nabil Dance provides some tips to set you on the right path


In my capacity as an education lawyer, over the years I have found that many senior managers can adequately present their school’s position on numerous policy topics. However, a lack of legal knowledge, or time pressure, tends to prevent them from producing policies that comply with the law. The balance is a delicate one that can be difficult to achieve and maintain.

I have drafted and reviewed many school policies over the years in order to ensure that schools achieve and maintain this careful balance. In this article, I will provide some tips to point you in the right direction.


What the law says

The initial question is: what policies must be established? Craig McKee recently wrote in Headteacher Update on the topic of keeping on top of your school’s policies – statutory and non-statutory. Meanwhile, the Department for Education (DFE, 2019) provides helpful guidance for schools and academy trusts entitled Statutory policies for schools and academy trusts. This sets out:

  • What policies must be published
  • Who this applies to (state-maintained schools or academies)
  • The review period
  • The approval level

While the guidance on this page is updated periodically, it does not necessarily account for every individual change in the law, so it is important to bear this in mind as time passes.

What about the content of each individual school policy? Well, in each policy, I would suggest referencing in laymen’s terms your school’s practices and overall position while listing certain appropriate legal obligations. The latter will be explored later in this article.


Who should take the lead in creating and writing policies?

Let governors, or the equivalent, take the lead. Advise them and offer what support you can in co-ordination with a small team. I once drafted and reviewed multiple policies for a very popular state-maintained special school – they adopted this exact approach, and it worked well on all sides.

In my experience, governors deal with documents very effectively because they can work on them at a time of their convenience, whereas a headteacher does not necessarily have this option because of other pressing matters.


A multi-professional approach

Governors, all senior management, and staff with any relevant specialist knowledge (e.g. a SENCO or child protection lead) should review and contribute to policies. A multi-party approach involving different professionals will maximise your chance of successfully establishing a consistent policy and productive feedback loop. There is nothing stopping you from seeking the input of other professionals within your network.


Dos and don’ts

Do: Plan, draft, finalise, adopt, and review each individual policy carefully. Headteachers are often overwhelmed with physical and electronic documents, so consider tracking them with a detailed spreadsheet.

Do: Fabricate realistic scenarios and test how they would be filtered through the policies. This can be especially helpful when a scenario triggers multiple policies. You know your school, so if you have an alternative system of measuring the potential effectiveness of policies, use that system.

Do: Make commitments in policies but be careful with specific wording. For instance, avoid committing to a specific degree of support unless it can be consistently guaranteed.

Do: Demonstrate knowledge of the relevant government guidelines – this is addressed in more depth below.

Do: Proof-read draft policies thoroughly before publication. A modern and effective way to do this is by using free text-to-speech software, such as Natural Readers (see online).

Do: Release your final version of the policy as a locked pdf. Alternatively, you can lock Word documents via various means (read more about this here). The purpose of either option is to prevent accidental editing or unauthorised editing by other parties.

Don’t: Lift entire chunks from policies written by other schools unless you are absolutely certain that they are appropriate to your educational setting. Any such imitation should be minimal and restricted to generic information.

Don’t: Overuse vague or ambiguous wording. This is sometimes necessary to protect a school but don’t overuse it, as this can cause backlash.

Don’t: Make policies difficult to find in a digital age. Make them visible and easily available on the school website. I never understood why some schools would force people to contact school administration in order to obtain copies. This bad habit has gone out of fashion now and I haven’t encountered it for a while. It has been a legal requirement for maintained schools to publish certain policies online since 2014 (DfE, 2014) and likewise for academy schools and sixth form colleges from 2016 (DfE, 2016).

Don’t: Treat policies as a bureaucratic, administrative, or “tick-box” exercise, as this will inevitably show in the end product. Each individual policy should be a meaningful journey and represent your school’s commitment to consistency.


Demonstrate knowledge of government guidelines

I would strongly recommend incorporating key principles from the relevant DfE guidelines, particularly mandatory requirements, into your policies. This shows that you understand the law and take it seriously.

This strategy carries multiple benefits, including strengthening your policies, avoiding future complaints and penalties, and protecting the school and pupils generally.

It also increases the confidence of regulatory bodies, such as the DfE, Ofsted, and the Local Government Ombudsman. Likewise, the confidence of other stakeholders and interested parties is maximised.

The alternative is to simply not reference these key principles in your policies. This serves no meaningful purpose and only leaves doubt and confusion in the reader’s mind. It opens up senior management to unnecessary criticism and complications.

Let’s explore a straightforward example of incorporating a specific legal requirement into, in this case, a school SEND policy. The SEND Code of Practice (DfE, 2014) contains certain legal requirements and guidance that governing bodies of schools and local authorities must follow by law, unless there is a good reason not to.

Paragraph 6.44 of the code states: “Where a pupil is identified as having SEN, schools should take action to remove barriers to learning and put effective special educational provision in place. This SEN support should take the form of a four-part cycle through which earlier decisions and actions are revisited, refined and revised with a growing understanding of the pupil’s needs and of what supports the pupil in making good progress and securing good outcomes. This is known as the graduated approach.”

A paragraph tailored to your school which addresses the graduated approach can and should be included in your SEN policy because it is something that schools already do, and no additional burden should be placed on your resources.

This kind of paragraph would be a good start to potentially establishing the benefits I outlined earlier.

The remaining question is: do you incorporate provisions from other such relevant guidelines which contain discretionary recommendations? This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends upon various factors such as the school’s needs, provision, and overall resources. It is a question of balancing these factors with the overall substance of the relevant policy.


Conclusion

Running a school is clearly a very complex task – the dramatic increase in the quantity of policies used over the past 10 years serves as a single good example of this. This has come about arguably due to changes in the law, educational provision, technology, and school culture. The potential benefits to pupils, parents, carers, staff, and the community, cannot be understated but each policy adds an administrative burden for senior management.

I would suggest thinking of each policy as a journey towards achieving true consistency in that particular segment of school management. After the initial time investment, and use of appropriate resources, the pay-off will be significant through the form of the numerous potential benefits highlighted throughout this article.

  • Nabil Dance is an educational lawyer who advises parents and schools in England and Wales. You can contact him via nabildance@mail.com. The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only.


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Statutory policies for schools and academy trusts, January 2019 (last updated March 2022): https://bit.ly/3VIZhEz
  • DfE: What maintained schools must publish online, September 2014 (last updated September 2022): https://bit.ly/3eKGGT8
  • DfE: What academies, free schools and colleges must or should publish online, June 2016 (last updated September 2022): http://bit.ly/2pejtjU
  • DfE & DoH: SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years, June 2014 (last updated April 2020): https://bit.ly/3nwHmPK
  • McKee: A school policy checklist, Headteacher Update, September 2022: https://bit.ly/3z0B4jn


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