Is overdocumentation causing ‘practice-policy gaps’ in schools?

This month, Adam Voigt warns against the quagmire of overdocumentation. Advocating for simplicity, he says school policy must provide professional safety and drive practice, but overdocumentation can bog down procedure. Complex wordy procedure is lost when teachers are at the coalface.

Disclaimer: this is not an article intent on bashing policy. School leaders need policy, they need to be responsible for it,  and they need to be seen as being responsible for policy too.

Policy serves a couple of key purposes in our schools:

1) It provides professional safety. Upon taking action in serious and emotional circumstances, we need to be able to prove that our actions and decisions were made in line with a well-considered approach, adequately documented, fully ratified, and understood by key stakeholders in the school.

2) It drives practice. Policy should be an accurate summary of the ways that we work. To that effect, it’s a tool of accountability for us, specifically for the staff of the school.

So, what goes wrong with policy and why is it that so many schools have what we might call practice-policy gaps in their operations? I’d contend strongly that the answer is overdocumentation. Policy then becomes a grab-bag of potential actions to the full gamut of potential scenarios in the futile race for consistency of outcome. This is our first mistake, as policy should never pre-determine an outcome. What policy should do is predetermine the process to be deployed when it figuratively “hits the fan”.

This obsession with long winded and ultra-comprehensive policy actually compromises those two key policy intentions. Thinking about professional safety, the problem with long policy is that the more you include the more you are accountable for.

I spoke recently to a litigation lawyer working in the field of wrongful dismissal who told me he loves it when companies have 100-page HR policies – “because I can always find something in there that’s contradictory, worded emotively or that wasn’t offered as a part of my client’s experience”. Long policy is essentially providing enough rope to those who would hang us.

And when we transfer to the second policy intention, driving practice, that doesn’t happen when policies are extensive, wordy and inaccessible either.  When was the last time a teacher popped into your principal’s office and said, “hey boss, I’ve got a spare 30 minutes on my hands and thought I might use it to scrub up on our attendance, teaching and learning, and parent communication policies. Got a copy handy?”

“The sweetest joy, the wildest woe is love. What the world needs is more love and less paperwork.” — Pearl Bailey

Nobody (alright – there’s the odd nerdy exception amongst us. Stand proud!) wants or seeks to read policy. And if we must, you’d better make it snappy. Only when policy is succinct, and where key practice imperatives are made explicit might it have some relevance when we’re standing knee deep in a sea of prep students on a swimming excursion, or venturing bravely in to teach maths to “that year nine class” on a Friday afternoon.

Further, we often take our obsession with documentation beneath the policy level and into our strategic plans, our action plans, our PLC objectives and even into teaching programs. One such example I’ve seen too regularly is in schools implementing positive behaviour support or the various statewide incarnations of such programs.

Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that if we can be comprehensive about student behaviour and document the vast array of behaviours that are potential in the vast breadth of locations in our schools; develop these into a matrix; devise mini-lessons on each, and then display the matrix on walls around the school that we’ll get a behavioural shift.

If comprehensive is the enemy of behaviour change, the simplification is the ally. In the end, if our students can’t tell us the third behaviour for the second school value on the matrix under the box for cafeteria – then we’ve wasted valuable leadership time.

Our brains, as drivers of our socialisation and behaviour are not wired for improvement in a multitude of ways in a multitude of contexts. This is the very reason that your friend (if you don’t have one – it’s probably you!) who makes nine New Year’s resolutions has kept none of them active by about January 5th – and they came up with their own behavioural targets! We’re even less likely to comply with behaviour or practice change when somebody else hits us with the all the changes. Can you imagine your response to a friend dropping by to let you know you should swear and drink a little less, that you should be nicer to your kids, that your lawn needs a mow and that your hair is a throwback to a forgotten era? If you’re like me the response is roughly (and colloquially) something along the lines of “get stuffed!”

But if somebody comes to me with a singular, important step and offers to support me in taking it – then I’m interested. This is the theory behind why we exercise more when we have a ‘gym buddy’. You don’t need a comprehensive plan, a contract or a policy for this agreement. We just need to don the Lycra and hit the treadmill. Action is the imperative, not the plan.

Do we want action and change … or to write copiously of our aspirations for it?


Don’t have time to absorb the whole article today? Here are the big points …

1) Comprehensive policy is a myth.

2) Wordy policy reduces professional safety.

3) Overdocumentation creates confusion and stagnates action.

4) Brevity on policy promotes accessibility and awareness.

5) Policy is about process and not pre-determined outcomes.

AITSL STANDARDS FOR PRINCIPALS… and you addressed them by reading!

The Big One

Professional Practice 4 – Leading the management of the school.

But also …

PP2 – Developing self and others.

PP3 – Leading improvement, innovation and change.

LR1 – Knowledge and understanding.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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