School Assembly Episode 7: Developing school policies

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp. School Assembly is the podcast that explores what it takes to build a new school from the ground up. In Series 1 we’re following Principal Dr Ray Boyd and Associate Principal Rachael Lehr as they navigate the exciting and challenging journey. Each month, we touch base for updates and reflections on their progress in the newly developing suburb of Dayton, located in the eastern metropolitan city of Swan in Perth, Western Australia.

We’re well into Term 1 and the staff at Dayton Primary School have been getting to know their students and helping them settle into the new surroundings. Last time out I spoke to Ray and Rachael about recruitment. In this episode we’ll be discussing how they’re developing school policies. One head’s up on terminology, we mention the DFES – that’s the WA Government Department of Fire and Emergency Services – and the ‘Good Standing Policy’ in WA is around student behaviour. Okay, on with the episode – I hope you enjoy it.

Jo Earp: Hi Ray and Rachael. So, blimey, that's the first month gone then. This is a really tricky one, but I'm going to challenge you to just 5 words each to describe the first month for Dayton Primary School.

Ray Boyd: Yeah, mine are easy, that’s ‘challenging’, ‘exciting’, ‘frustrating’, ‘rewarding’ and ‘daunting’.

Rachael Lehr: That, yeah well, I've got one of the same – so, it was really ‘exciting’ to open the school. It was quite ‘overwhelming’ as well. It's also been ‘hard work’ (that's 2 words together, but it's just been a lot of long hours), and it's also been, I feel ‘optimistic’ about the future at Dayton because we've got a really great team. And, and I don't even have a fifth word, so I'm going to cheat and just give you 4.

JE: OK, I think that was a bit more than 4, but anyway ...

RB: I didn't buy anything Jo, the first sentence was about 9!

JE: So, I saw on the socials that you gave all the staff the same goal then, right, for the for the first month, I think. So, it wasn't around, like, literacy and numeracy or any particular target. There’s NAPLAN coming up, but that wasn't it. So, the target was to create a welcoming classroom environment.

RB: Yes. Yeah. So that was deliberate. We've got a new school, the kids have left (in the case of our older students), the kids have left an environment they're very familiar with, particularly for our senior students – they've left their friends when they've come to the school. And the little kids then, for our Kindies, it's the first time they've been in a school. So, the goal was set to the staff to make sure that the kids on the very first day actually leave your class smiling. So, they go home with a positive experience from school, and then we'll build it from there.

There was some other focuses within that, which we spoke to the staff collectively, but the primary one was make your classroom somewhere where the kids want to come, they want to participate, they feel welcomed and they actually have that sense of belonging.

RL: And that tied into our Vision Statement around developing that sense of belonging and then also really matched strongly to our focus on relationships. So, it was about, like Ray said, that every child just wants to be at Dayton, are happy to be at Dayton, and those continue. So, even though that was the first week, we've actually continued those foci for the whole month and onwards.

JE: Yeah, sounds great. So yeah, I mean, that's the other thing, isn't it? We can all write, you know, statements of what we think's going to happen and strategic plans and vision statements, but it's actually remembering that ‘yes, are we actually doing it?’. So, it's nice to hear that that's tied in back to there and relationships are the foundation and for building that excellence – and you've talked about it many times about building excellence for Dayton, I've seen it on the socials everywhere. Our topic this month is school policies. I can imagine there are loads of policy areas then to think about these days, are there?

RB: Oh, absolutely truckloads. The first one we had was around a fire plan, but DFES [the WA Government Department of Fire and Emergency Services] came through and did a bit of a survey and we've actually been taken off the plan. So that was one that got taken off our list, which was fantastic. But the first one we had to work around was whole school policy and school behaviour and what teachers could do in their rooms. And then what we had is, across the whole school, by way of what was expected and what was permissible in the way that the students interacted with each other. We're currently working on our, what's it called? Good Standing Policy, and Rachel has been going hammer and tong working on our Instructional Handbook.

RL: Yes. So that's been a key document. And we did talk about that a little bit in our previous episodes about that Instructional Playbook that we established before we even got onto the school site with our staff, and we went through that back in January. But that's framing everything that happens in the classrooms – expectations we have around teaching and learning and how that will look, our programs, instructional framework. So, you wouldn't particularly call it a policy, but it's what we come back to.

And also, like Ray mentioned, on our first staff meeting, we sat with the staff and we created, rather than rules, there were expectations around some key values. So, we have: respect, excellence, enthusiasm, and perseverance; and our vision statement, which was already released to the public. So, everything went back to that and how that will look. So yeah, but there's lots more things to come. We've got a lot …

RB: And the hard bit too, Jo, is in a school that you've been in for years the policies are just there, you've forgot what you've done. So, in this school, being new, we had a Phys Ed’er came and said ‘oh, I need we've got Interschool (Sports). So, ‘OK, we need to develop our excursion policy, so let's go back to what the department’s got there and see how it's going to work here’. We haven't had wet weather yet, but that one's going to come up. We've had head lice in the school already ‘ah, we haven't developed anything around that, what have we got previously?’ Had to let staff know – again, all my staff knew in a previous school if the kid took a bump on the head, we immediately notified the parents just in case, regardless of how hard that was. And it's like ‘Okay, we haven't notified staff around what we do with bumps in the head’. So, there is just, the list is actually endless.

JE: Yeah, I can imagine.

RB: We often discover what you don't have in the moment. So, I went into the year 5/6 classroom to help them figure out how to use the Chromebooks, and then I realised that we actually hadn't gone through a Digital Tech Policy around student use. So, we had an informal discussion at that point, but then it reminded me we need a formal policy around student use of digital technologies and the Internet, and so on. So, we're often discovering it at the very last minute, when we realise we don't have it.

JE: Yeah. I mean, for people who've listened to all the episodes so far, you'll know that (people listening) that Ray and Rachael are experienced school leaders. So, you know, there's quite a lot you can take from previous roles. But there's, as you mentioned Ray, there's things like the Education Department and so on. But it's not, like, a cut and paste job is it, I mean, they need to be tailored there for your context, and you can't just grab stuff you've used before.

RB: Yeah, that's right. There's a lot of contextual stuff. The Department stuff is easy in the sense that there are some mandates and some specific guidelines, but it's just making sure that what you develop doesn't step outside of those guidelines while at the same time works within the school’s context and the environment and the community that you've got – yeah, spot on.

RL: And that regard, last night Ray had flipped me by e-mail our Good Standing Policy, which was largely based on what we had at our previous school, but reading through it, like you've mentioned, there were things that were quite contextual to that school, so we have to be careful that things like that don't slip through. So, even though it makes sense to use what we previously had, we do actually have to make it quite contextual to our school environment now.

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JE: So I'm interested in the policies themselves. I guess some are less informal than others. Some have to be really formal, like you mentioned a fire plan, or whatever, or health and safety. But some are kind of less informal… or are they all from a set template with, you know, ‘this is the purpose of the policy … these are the roles and responsibilities … this is the date we've introduced it … we're going to review it at so and so date …’ How does it actually work with them?

RB: Yeah, well, there's a combination of both. So, I know we've been taken off the fire plan now, but that has to be done every year. And there is a very structured (for obvious reasons) and rigid template which you have to follow – where the kids are going to go, who the contacts are, the phone trees, all those sorts of things. So that is very structured. Then you've got, when we look at our instructional framework and the policy that we want our staff to refer to – they are more of like ‘here's the guidelines that we want you to follow’ but within that, depending on your class and what you're doing, that chops and changes, so there's considerable flexibility within that as long as you're sticking loosely to the framework. Then we move to excursion policies, and again there are some really stickler stuff that you just, you can't overlook ‘cause it has to be included in the way that the letters are worded, the information that parents give you, you can't just assume that a non-reply is an affirmative, there actually has to be a reply.

So, it just depends. I think it's more a case of when we're looking at student safety, particularly, and you're playing in the public domain, the guidelines are very rigid. When we're working within the school’s framework, again, safety is always an issue, but when we're in the school’s framework we've got a little bit more flexibility within that space and how the teachers can operate within that space.

RL: An example of that would be a behaviour policy that's going to be relying on what systems we've put in, maybe in terms of rewards or consequences – that would be very school-based and that’s sort of open to input from the teachers and even the students themselves as to how that may look. That said, obviously, in line with the Department’s behaviour policies as well at the at the bigger picture level. So yeah, it's very dependent.

JE: Yeah.

RB: I mean, a good example of that is the other day, one of our students got struck on the side of the head with a tennis racket by another pupil. Now, if you were cut and dry, a student’s been hit with a weapon by another student, well that’s suspension. But now, let's look at that. Well, actually, the kid was swinging the racket around. It wasn't trying to hit or strike the other child. The kid’s head got in the way, so it was a complete accident. Well, now we're using something completely different there. It's not the case the kid’s been struck by another student. There's a lot of things that came into play. So, it comes down to the instance, it comes down to who was involved, it comes down to the context in which that took place. So that's where you get that flexibility and that rigidity is removed from the policy.

JE: So it's about how you interpret the policies as well. And the other thing is, I was just thinking about, you know, who you communicate those to as well is going to be different, isn't it? Depending on what type of policy it is. So, I'm remembering a podcast I did with Professor Ken Rigby – obviously he's written tons about bullying in schools – and he was saying that, you know, he'd been to a school and the kids knew that there was, well, some of them knew there was a bullying policy, anti-bullying policy, some of them didn't know, some of them had seen it, some of them hadn't seen it. So, it depends who you share different policies with, doesn’t it?

RB: And that's the language that you're talking about. The way it's communicated is really important. Bullying is a really good one actually, because we'll have parents come in and say ‘my child was bullied yesterday’ and you look into it. So, they weren't actually bullied, there was a one-off incident, there was a conflict over a toy. That's not bullying. So, it's also making sure everyone understands what the terms mean when you're talking about the policy and the things within it. And it's important too, as a leadership team, that we communicate very clearly with our staff so they're getting exactly the same message so when it comes back to – where you said earlier to me, it's how you interpret it – everyone's able to interpret it in the same way.

JE: Yeah.

RL: And our expectations that we outlined and those values that we feel are important at Dayton, we communicated those with the staff first for their feedback, they helped develop them. And then the second stage was we sat with the students and went through them one by one, and then we also shared it with the families. So, every family member from Dayton received that through Seesaw – the app that we use to communicate. So, that way, if there is ever a concern about something that's happened, we can go back to that, it's been shared, it's quite public. And like you say, Ray, the language that we develop for that, it had to be quite user-friendly because it's for the whole school community.

JE: Who writes them, and do they go through a formal agreement process then?

RL: Yeah, not really formal.

RB: Not formal, as such. We don't have a Board yet. You see that's another [one on our To Do list] a policy around developing Terms of Reference. We've got a Steering Committee that was part of a group that helped us set up the school, from the parents. So, we run things by them and get feedback from them, and policy too. Theoretically, schools can't write policy. Policy comes from the Department of Education, or West Australian Government. So, we basically frame guidelines and operational structures within what the Department sets out. So, our policies are a little bit different in the terms of how they look and how they're written. But it is formalised with our staff, it’s formalised with us and occasionally too, Jo, there’s stuff where it goes ‘there's no conversation here, this just is’.

JE: Yeah. Yeah, okay. So, how have things changed in recent years? We’re sort of post-COVID era now, or still living through it, and that plays into some of those health and safety policies, doesn't it? There's technology as well. There's been a lot of debate about use of mobile phones, different social media apps and so on. How have things changed in the last sort of 5 years or so as you've been in education?

RL: Well, like you've mentioned, Jo, the social media has become a big thing even in primary schools. You know, kids are on social media apps that are designed for 13-year-olds and above at year 1, year 2 level. And what we have found is that, we mentioned bullying before, some of those kind of bullying incidences are happening via social media at home. So, there's a lot of work to be done in that space in education in terms of mobile phone use at school. We obviously can't impact on how students are using devices at home, other than aiding the families about ‘you may not know this, but if your child is on TikTok or they're using Discord (or whatever it is), these things may pop up as an issue’. So we have, in the past, not so much here yet, but it has been mentioned by our year 2 teacher that some of their kids are quite active on social media. So those policies need to be developed here as well.

The other thing too, post-COVID I feel like is a stronger focus on wellbeing – for staff and students and families. So, I think that, you know, whether or not it's a policy, but what we are doing in that space needs to be articulated clearly.

JE: Mm-hmm, yeah. And we've spoken a bit about when the different policies are in place and you've spoken about, you know, which ones were done first and things like that. How often would you review them then?

RB: There’s 2 times we would review – one is yearly. I've got into the habit now under each policy, put the date and then under it say when it was updated, so we know. But it's always good to check and we try to get into the habit, and we'll do that here every year, going through it again. But there's also as updates are made by the Department of Education or Government policy changes, then obviously that flows down. So there's times where you may have to look at something ahead of that one year timeline that we've set ourselves here. So, it just depends on the situation. Also, if you've got a policy and there's, let's just say there's an incident where you've had to go and something doesn't work – good example of that is your fire policy and your lockdown drills. So, you run through the drill and you go ‘no, that didn't work, so yeah, we have to make changes there’. So, as we as we actually put them on the ground and see how they play out – because obviously what looks great on paper doesn't pan out really well when it actually hits the ground – we'll make those adjustments then. So, it's just dependent on the policy, the timeframe and what's happening at the time.

JE: Yeah, that's a good point. Okay then, before we go then, let's go for your ‘key learning’, ‘biggest hurdle’, ‘proudest achievement’ since we last spoke – that was at the start of February actually, just before you opened.

RB: The biggest hurdle for me is not knowing the children – is trying to get an understanding, the kids, particularly with our senior students, trying to build those relationships, find out their weaknesses and their strengths and share that with the staff so we have can have conferences with families and identify which particular area students need strengthening. So that's probably been the biggest challenge and learning for me is how much we actually don't know about these kids.

RL: And on top of that, I'm finding there's a sense of, like, we have so much to do and we want to do it all right now, in terms of teaching and learning. So, we're so keen to get in and coach our teachers, but we're also aware that we don't want to overwhelm them. But we just want to get things done, so it's sort of a bit of a frustration that we have to go slowly, slowly when we wish we could just get in and get everything done all at once. And a key learning for me – and I mentioned this a bit before when I was trying to articulate 5 words and didn't – but I just think that we have brought together an incredible team of staff. So I just have learned that we made some wise decisions, perhaps, around our recruitment, because our team is so cohesive, passionate and working so well together. So, I'm really excited about the future with this team.

RB: And I just, I reiterate what Rachael said, that the work we did with Joel around the Lego and selecting this team has really paid dividends. There's some of our staff, a couple are young, but their enthusiasm and their passion, they've got everything there they just need support in shaping that. So, I'm excited by the fact of the way we've got this team together and the way they've gelled.

RL: And I think a proud achievement for me – and maybe for you too Ray – is just seeing everything come together over this last month. You know, the uniforms look amazing, the classes look incredible, you know, the teachers are doing a fabulous job. The community already has a really great community feel; people are walking and riding to school and they hang out in the morning for 15 minutes before the class is open. So, I think I feel proud of what we've achieved over a lot of hard work over the last year.

RB: And for me it's that ability when we look at our vision and tying in with James Nottingham's work, that we've managed to link everything we've done back to our School's Vision, so we've actually managed to keep that connection. And that has enabled us to make sure everything flows on and everything sort of comes back to that one idea. Staff are seeing that as well. So, for me that that's been a huge achievement, the fact that we've managed to do that it's been more than rhetoric, we've actually enacted it.

JE: Fantastic. You've definitely hit the ground running! Well, we haven't got the luxury of pootling about today – you've gotta go up and up the school gates and I've got to go work on this audio so we can actually release the episode. Have a great March, both of you. I'll catch up with you next month. We'll be chatting about building a school culture then.

RL: Excellent, Jo, thank you.

RB: No worries, Jo. Thank you. Have a good day.

That’s all for this episode of School Assembly, thanks for listening. As I mentioned, next time we’ll be chatting with Ray and Rachael about building a positive and effective school culture. In the meantime, you can follow Ray and Rachael’s socials for updates in between episodes by following the links at the podcast transcript over on our website,

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Other episodes in this series:

At the beginning of this episode, we talk about how staff at Dayton have been helping students settle into the new school. How do you go about creating a welcoming and safe classroom environment for your own students?

For school policies that use existing guidelines or structures (for example, from the education department), do you ensure that they are adapted to suit your own context and student needs?

How do you communicate policies to staff, and where appropriate, students and parents? Do you explain terminology to ensure there is a common understanding of what it means?