A chair of governors at a school in a neighbouring village was telling me about his impending inspection by the Office for Standards in Education. "We ratified 20 new policies at our last full governors' meeting," he said proudly. This provides one answer to the question "what are school policies for?". They are to bamboozle the inspectors.
Unfortunately, the OFSTED team will also look at the minutes of recent governors' meetings and will be only too well aware of the recent provenance of what they refer to as "wet-ink policies". They will also fail to be impressed by policies so antiquated that they are written in spidery copperplate on parchment. Sheer volume will not do it either: the suspicion will always arise that the more paper being applied, the greater the cracks it is intended to hide.
School policies should be living, working documents, and not just for the benefit of OFSTED. For a new governor, they should be the most direct route to understanding what the school is trying to do, and how it achieves its objectives.
My local education authority produces a list of 20 required policies, covering such areas as religious education, special needs, complaints procedure, staff discipline, pay and redundancies, health and safety, and exclusions. Another 10 policies are recommended, for example on homework, bullying, financial controls and emergency planning. They also provide a list of the curriculum areas for which there should be a statement of objectives and a detailed curriculum plan. You may feel you do not want to read these all at once. Short cuts are clearly necessary to get you up to speed.
The DFEE Guidance on Good Governance suggests new governors should be given a list of the school's policies and information on where they can be found, other introductory packs suggest copies of the "main" policies, or a summary of all of them. My school goes for the summary. Iwrote it myself a couple of years ago in a white heat of terror. I had just seen the LEA list of policies for which governors were responsible and was horrified to find that I had never seen most of them. They all existed in various forms, and my self-appointed task was to gather them together, find the relevant legislation and revise and review where necessary. I then wrote a one-page summary of each policy and area of responsibility.
Do not try this at home without adult supervision. You could suggest setting up a working party to do it. A quick introduction to the school's policies can be useful to new staff or supply teachers as well as governors, thus ensuring consistency of approach.
It is easy to think in my quiet rural primary that some policies are never going to be needed - a staff grievance and discipline policy, for example. But if we wait until one is needed, it is difficult to be sufficiently objective about procedures when in the middle of a tough situation.
Formulating and reviewing policies provides an ideal opportunity for governors and staff to work together on defining objectives and establishing the ethos of the school. Your LEA may be able to provide model policies as a basis for your discussions: my LEA runs a policy exchange service. You can then tailor the policies to your own school, so that they reflect current practice and achievable aspirations.
Governors are supposed to monitor school effectiveness: policies help establish the standard you are working towards.
Joan Dalton is a governor in the East Midlands