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2.5.2 Policies in practice - ensuring enforcement in the classroom

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the ways in which policies are enacted in schools;
  • Be able to manage evidence of your compliance with policies; and
  • Make it easier for observers to notice your good practice.

A principles-led approach

Ozga (2000) describes the common way policy is understood is to be something that the government creates. How the government then gets the policy to have any impact depends on its strategy; in the UK, the most common strategy has been to link policies with observations or funding. This is known as 'steering at a distance' (Kickert, 1995), meaning that the government does not have to force schools or teachers to comply, but it offers rewards to those who do. In this way, you (or your school) are told what to do and then evaluated on how well you do it, and possibly incentivised to do it well. This same approach might be used at school-level. For example, a school might include health and safety in its peer evaluation process. By focusing some of the feedback on your teaching on this policy area, you are encouraged to pay attention to the policy. If your teaching is also partly judged on this, then you have another incentive to make sure you are following the policy.

A more flexible conceptualisation of policy is that it is an intention of the government which is encoded (i.e. written) in a policy document. Responsibility then falls to schools and individual teachers to interpret those intentions in their local context. This gives power at a local level to think about what a particular policy is trying to achieve and how you might meet those intentions.

A third approach is to see policy much more as a process. Instead of being something created and then imposed, you can think more about policy as a messy and negotiated process. This means that policy belongs not just to whoever wrote the policy, but to everyone involved in its implementation and wider context. Policy is "enacted" rather than "implemented", and so can be contested or interpreted in creative ways (Ball et al, 2012, p.2). Looking at policies in this way reminds us that policies are generally created after consultation or research, so it is the responsibility of policy-makers to represent the intention of all the voices of all the different stakeholders.

Finally, how flexibly and critically you engage with policies will also depend on how you are managed. If your line manager has a strict interpretation of a particular policy, arguing for your own interpretation could be a waste of time. Unless you think that your manager has seriously misunderstood a key point, you may simply have to follow whatever guidance is issued. The same will be particularly true of how you think about school inspections. Some teachers feel intimidated and are anxious about how they will be graded, as despite frequent attempts by inspectors to say that they do not have a preferred teaching style, there are plenty of private companies which employ former inspectors to tell teachers what inspectors are looking for. It would take a very confident teacher to take an entirely principles-led approach to teaching. However, if you are confident that your pupils are learning effectively then you might decide that you should trust than an inspector will be competent enough to see your good practice without needing any special consideration.

One of the best reasons to take a principles-led approach is that teachers have to think about a wide range of policies as well as actually doing the job of teaching. If policies are interpreted too strictly or as technical exercises, there may be conflicts.

Schools can differ dramatically, even within local areas: each school will have its own way of doing things, and many of its rules and routines might be tacitly understood: you will not find them written down anywhere or even be told what they are, but will gradually learn to follow what everyone else does. As new policies come along, it is up to the school community to absorb new principles into these practices. A new policy, or an observation of how a policy is treated, can also challenge established practices. It is then up to the school to think about how it will respond.

Policies in and out of the classroom

Within the classroom, all of these policies are interpreted through the broader lens of inclusion. This means that an inclusive classroom will clearly display the principles of these policies in action. In your short- and medium-term planning, you would therefore want to show that you are aware of barriers to learning by knowing:

  • The different groups of pupils in your classroom;
  • The additional needs of particular individuals;
  • The broader cultural context of your school.

It is useful to reflect on how clearly you 'live' these values in your everyday dealings with pupils and colleagues. You might find the following prompts helpful:

  • Safeguarding: do your pupils see your classroom as a safe place to make a disclosure? Do you promote a healthy lifestyle, including work-life balance? Do you give pupils a clear example of how they should expect other professionals to treat them? Do you show respect for children's rights?
  • Equality and diversity: do you proactively address equality and diversity issues? Is difference a normal part of your classroom? What does tolerance and respect look like? Do you effectively challenge inappropriate behaviour at a conceptual level? How are your pupils prepared to critically challenge extreme or intolerant views?
  • Health and safety: do your pupils know how to identify and manage risks for themselves? Are you confident that your classroom is a safe place? Are you aware of what to do in an emergency situation, including the location of your nearest first aider? Do pupils see your health and safety actions as reasonable and legitimate?
  • Data protection: do you have the data you need to promote inclusion? Is the data secure? Is it up-to-date? How do you know when you no longer need a piece of data, and what do you do with it then?

The Ofsted view

Given the large number of consultants claiming to offer special insight into how Ofsted observe lessons, it is surprising how few teachers actually read the guidance from Ofsted. Their school inspection handbook (Ofsted, 2016) gives plenty of detail about how schools and teachers will be inspected. For example, the importance of safeguarding is underlined as important because it gives inspectors the right to inspect a school even if that school is normally exempt from inspections (for example, if it was previously judged outstanding). Concerns about safeguarding, particularly "the ability of staff to maintain discipline and/or welfare concerns" (Ofsted, 2016, .7), can trigger an inspection.

It is also important to know that Ofsted carries out its own risk assessments of schools by using available data. Schools which were previously rated as good can receive a shorter one-day inspection, and schools previously rated as outstanding may not be visited at all. Clearly, an inspector needs to have good data to be able to do this type of desk-based analysis. If you do not provide good data, then an inspector will have to visit to see for themselves.

As we saw with health and safety legislation, there are a great deal of myths in schools about Ofsted. The inspection handbook is valuable reading to help challenge some of these myths. An important example is planning - the handbook is clear that individual lesson plans are not required, nor is there an expectation of any particular level of detail. Provided that planning is effective, Ofsted is not concerned about the format of your plans. Equally, copious planning and pedantic details does not mean that learning has been well planned, just as a long risk assessment does not mean that an activity has been planned safely. Incidentally, the same is true for marking and feedback: the quantity and frequency is irrelevant, rather it is important what pupils do with feedback.

You should also be aware that individual lessons will not be graded. Previously, inspectors gave informal feedback to teachers about how their lesson would have been rated, but this is no longer the case (although you should still get feedback). All of this should reassure you that Ofsted inspectors are astute enough to focus on effective learning and teaching, and experienced enough to appreciate the realities of school life.

Hints and tips

The challenge of using policies to inform good teaching is that the policies need to be embedded in your practice. Just like any truly inclusive classroom, the best policy-informed teaching is almost invisible because it is just good general practice. This is a good reason for regularly reflecting on your principles and checking the data that you collect, helping to make sure that your practice is as good as it can be.

This emphasis on values and principles does not mean, however, that teachers are left to interpret everything for themselves. Whatever your subject area or role, there are plenty of tips which you might find helpful. Examples of how you can do this in real life include:

  • Identify target groups where research has shown a higher risk of underachievement. Check their attainment and their progress (look for value added or Fischer Family Trust data). What are their barriers to learning? What can you do to help?

A helpful list of such groups is given in Glazzard and Stokoe (2011). These include "children with learning difficulties and disabilities; children in public care ['looked after' children, or LACs]; travellers, refugees and asylum seekers; children living in families where parents have alcohol or drug dependency problems or a mental illness; children affected by domestic violence" (Glazzard and Stokoe, 2011, p.25). 

  • Check that you hold good data on vulnerable groups.

A simple check is free school meal entitlement: are there any differences in attainment or progress? If you are a form tutor, make sure that eligible pupils are registered for free school meals. If you teach, you should be able to say without checking your notes which of your pupils are entitled to free school meals and how you are meeting their needs.

  • Be aware of healthy lifestyles and the subtle messages you send.

Drink water in class and have healthy snacks - or at least, have unhealthy snacks in private!

  • Look out for teachable moments.

Particularly those related to key policies initiatives such as bullying or financial awareness.

  • Look for opportunities for pupils to make positive contributions.

Is there a social issue related to your subject? Fundraising or just forming connections with other agencies can be highly empowering.

  • Be a role model.

Don't be embarrassed about your professional status: children should be able to look for you to help them understand how adults should behave. Even if you are not quite a model adult yet, avoid bringing your personal problems into the classroom. Being a good role model also means taking good care of yourself, so think about your work-life balance.

Conclusion

Being aware of how barriers to learning can affect particular pupils or groups of pupils is vital to effective teaching and creating an inclusive classroom. Teachers are expected to behave proactively in planning for addressing issues, rather than waiting for problems to occur. The policies covered in this module go beyond a teacher's duty to create an inclusive classroom, and look to the broader role teachers play in society. There is significant scope for interpretation and creativity in how national-level policies are enacted in schools, and even where local authorities or schools have their own policies there will still be times where you are expected to use your professional judgement. The clearest examples of this are when policies are in conflict, in which case it is important for a teacher to have thought about the principles of key policies.


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