THE Policy Manual
Background: What is “Policy”?
Fundamental to effective governance on any international school is a sound, functional, clearly articulated set of policies. The “Policy Manual” serves as the homing beacon for all school operations. As defined in the International Trustee Handbook (2019), “The board’s policy manual is, in effect, a set of directives adopted over time to guide the administration in operating the school on a day-to-day basis.”
Just what are policies, and how do they serve as that “beacon”? In essence, school Policies are broad guidelines which create the framework within which the Head of School can discharge his/her duties consistent with the values of the school and expectations of the Board (based on The National School Boards Association definition). That definition begs an explanation of the difference between “policies” and what inherently follows, the “procedures” that are employed to enact those broad guidelines.
Simply put, policies chart a course of action, describing the what whereas procedures are detailed directions for putting policy into place. Procedures describe the how, by whom, where, and when. In practice, Policies are the Board’s work; Procedures belong to the Head of School.
Sound Policies do not just pop up out of the blue. Policies are the natural offspring of a school’s Bylaws and Articles of Association, providing more specificity and clarity to the framework for how the school will function. As such, there should be alignment, but not redundancy among all three. Think about those fundamental documents as cascading down from one to the other, at each level, bringing greater focus to the principles on which the school is based. So, too, “Procedures” then cascade down from what is set forth in the Policy Manual. “Sound” policies provide a clear statement of the Board’s expectations while not prescribing (and therefore restricting) how those expectations shall be met. Setting expectations is the Board’s responsibility; meeting them is the Head of School’s.
Aside from common sense, there are a number of reasons good schools need good policies:
- Policies codify the school's values and beliefs, clearly communicating the principles upon which the school is based.
- Policies expedite decision making; as a reference tool, policies articulate “decisions” already made.
- Policies articulate the Board's expectations regarding fulfillment of the school's mission, the Board’s primary responsibility.
- Policies promote stability and consistency; the wheel need not be reinvented each situation encountered.
- Policies provide employees, students and parents the security of knowing how issues are dealt with, engendering confidence in the Board and its decision-making process.
- Policies illustrate the demarcation between the authority of the Board and that of the Head of School, clarifying who does what.
- Policies fulfill legal requirements and best practice guidelines, providing an “official” quality to how the school functions.
How does a Board find the balance in articulating its expectations as a “broad framework”? Essentially, the following seven criteria ensure “policy” is sound:
The policy is consistent with the mission and identity of the school;
Policies should serve as the road map for fulfilling the mission in accordance with the values and principles the school community holds dear. How the expectations of the Board are expressed reveals the school culture that is desired.
The issue is within the scope of the Board's authority, reflects the Board's roles and responsibilities as governing body of the school, and/or describes what the Board itself will do/decide;
By law, charter, and accreditation standards, the Board is the ultimate authority over all school matters, but the Board cannot have a policy for EVERYTHING. The Board should have policies for issues which are only their job (e.g. hiring the Head of School), for issues where confusion could exist regarding authority (e.g. financial controls), for "hot-button" or critical issues (e.g. national quotas), and for internal Board operational issues (e.g. recalling a Trustee).
The Board really want this on its plate;
Establishing a policy specific and prescriptive in content means the Board owns that issue and understands that they are the "deciders;" does the Board really want to be dealing with this issues??? (e.g. dress code “policy”)
It is distinct; it does not exist in the school's Articles of Association, Bylaws, or elsewhere in the Policy Manual - and it is needed; absent this policy, confusion and questions would abound
Redundancy with the Articles of Association and Bylaws is unnecessary and can lead to confusion (i.e. the Board has the authority to change policy but the Association changes the Bylaws). Care should be taken to ensure consistency with those fundamental documents as well as across sections of the Policy Manual. Finally, many "policies" (lower-case "p") are operational and do not belong in the Policy Manual but should be published in other official publications (Handbook, Regulations, Protocols, etc.).
Policies should serve a real need - addressing expectations that are important to clarify. Policy Manuals should not be cluttered with codification of what is patently obvious and clear anyway.
It cites only the barest essentials needed to describe the Board's general expectations, expressed in clear, simple language - a succinct expressions of "what," "why," and "to what extent;"
"What" describes the expectation; "Why" explains why that expectation is held, helpful in interpreting how to implement it; and "To what extent" sets the bar. "How," "when," "where," and "when," etc. to meet that expectation are decisions best left to the Head of School's judgment.
Wordy narratives can be prescriptive, limiting, confusing, and simply too much to wade through. Frugality of verbiage cuts to the chase.
It is broad and general, dealing with values, principles, and results rather than specific actions or situations - not prescriptive; refraining from dictating how, who, when, and where;
"Broad and general" keeps the Board out of the weeds; "values and principles" keeps the issue consistent with the identity/culture of the school as the Board wants it; "results" establishes the basis for holding the Head of School accountable; and "situations" provides some flexibility.
For most issues, the Head of School is far better positioned to determine implementation than is the Board. Further, dictating specifics can be demotivating and, in some contexts distrustful to the Head of School.
The wording provides sufficient latitude in implementation to allow for unanticipated changes in circumstances - the Board is comfortable with the Head of School acting based on any reasonable interpretation of this policymaking.
Another reason to keep policy broad and general is that situations change, and the Head of School and his/her staff are best positioned to respond to those unanticipated or murky situations if he/she has some latitude for exercising judgment. The scope of that latitude should be implied, however, ultimately, it rests in the professionalism of the Head of School.
Different issues and contexts warrant different levels of specificity in policy. Policy should be only as explicit as the Board feels is necessary to set the boundaries for interpretations that the Board can live with ("reasonable").
The accompanying exemplars provide a generic sample of sound Articles of Association, Bylaws, and Policy Manual. The framework and sample Articles/policies are based on a review of the literature of several organizations (earlier AAIE work; NSBA guidelines; the CIS Policy Planner, BoardSource, etc.) and over forty international schools’ Articles of Association (including “Charters,” “Constitutions,” “Certificates of Incorporation,” “Statutes,” etc.). Bylaws, and Policy Manuals. The 110 policies in this Model Policy Manual represent an amalgamation of those forty schools’ documents, edited for what this author has observed to be “best practice” in successful international schools today.
Schools are encouraged to use these exemplars as templates in reviewing and revising their own documents, editing for their own situation.
The AAIE International School Board Development Curriculum is a component of the AAIE Governance Suite by David Chojnacki and Rick Detwiler, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Under this Creative Commons license, you are free to share this material — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, under the following terms:
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