Designer labels

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Should schools run up their own home-made policy documents or take their pick from the off-the-peg collection? Below Gerald Haigh (left) and Susannah Kirkman (right) consider the options. Do you remember Leslie Duckett's trolley? Young Leslie, you may recall, appears in "Spit Nolan", one of the stories in Bill Naughton's collection, The Goalkeeper's Revenge, for many years a primary school favourite. It tells of adventures with those home-made steerable wooden trolleys upon which we all used to zoom down hilly Northern streets.

Leslie Duckett, though, was a rich man's son, and his trolley was not home-made, but had been specially ordered by his dad. It was made of oak, and had pneumatic tyres, a brake, a lamp and a beautiful white steering rope "Such a magnificent trolley," says the story, "had never been seen."

But, of course, trolleys were never intended to be thus. Trolleys were to be built in backyards from pram wheels, old bits of wood and a length of your mum's clothesline. They could be repaired, swapped and given away, but the idea of having a brand new one created nothing but consternation.

Poor Leslie knew this, and could not make up his mind whether to be proud or ashamed. In the world of urban pavement trolleys, process was more important than product.

Does primary school management work on similar lines? Should all the policies required and recommended on curriculum, behaviour, special needs, health and safety, pay, staffing and the rest be put together at home, out of bits your own old rope? Is that where the value and satisfaction lie? Or can you save time and energy and be more certain of a legal and OFSTED-friendly result by looking for something ready-made by experts?

Schools will increasingly face up to this issue, because heads and governors realise that government legislation makes similar demands on every school. One policy, surely, will do for everyone, give or take a little cutting and pasting. This is why primary schools are increasingly working together in consortia to write policies, often with support from the local authority. It is also why it is now possible to buy policies off the peg from the consultancy First and Best in Education, for example, whose three volumes of Primary School Policies cover the core and foundation curriculum subjects as well as the central management issues.

To be fair, those who advocate the use of Leslie Duckett-style policies are well aware of the importance of process. The introduction to First and Best's Primary School Management Policies emphasises that "They are not intended to be finished products, rather drafts which schools may take as starting points in their own policy-writing process, providing structure and much applicable content in a form that can be easily edited to suit the particular circumstances of the school." And author Heather Govier writes of the need for "a process of collaboration and debate which involves the whole staff".

Clearly, in the end, what matters is how imported policies are used. If the head says, "We needn't worry about the special needs policy, because I've pinched this one from old Jack at St Norman's" and it is then brought in, stamped with the school name and shelved, perhaps with some notion that it might be consulted as and when necessary, then clearly the value of participation, and any sense of ownership, is going to be missing something which a good OFSTED team would quickly sniff out.

This is a danger which may be particularly acute in those areas which are subject to legal statute, such as health and safety. A well-written and legally-tested health and safety policy, for example, needs little change from school to school, and there is that much more temptation to buy one in and leave it unopened until it is needed.

If, though, a ready-made policy is treated not as a sop to outside pressure, but as a guide and aide-memoire, cutting out needless repetition and keeping everyone on track through the process of writing the school's own version, then it really will help to solve the problem of the continuous re-invention of the wheel.

After all, the lads who had a good look round Leslie Duckett's trolley probably went on to make better ones themselves the following week.

Primary School Policies are available either as photocopiable books or on computer disk at Pounds 12.95 each from First and Best in Education, 34 Nene Valley Business Park, Oundle, Peterborough PE8 4HL.

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