Why does my school need to have written policies?
22 Oct 2019
- Business Law
- Employment Law
The aim of any school is to provide students with the best education that they can. However, in the background is a delicate balancing act between managing staff, managing parent expectations and running the business side of the school. In that environment – like any business – some tasks, such as updating internal policies, can drop lower and lower down the priority list as the school’s managers are required to react to issues as they arise on a day-to-day basis.
In this article Emily Shoemark looks at why having up-to-date and tailored written policies, in relation to both staff and students, are important to protect the school and allow its managers to focus on the school’s purpose – educating students.
Why policies are important
Clear and tailored policies can help to create the culture you desire within the school and assist to maintain a consistently high quality of performance – both in relation to staff and students.
An effective suite of policies will clearly communicate the school’s expectations of its staff and students. In some circumstances, policies can also protect the school from legal claims.
Policies play an important role before students even enrol in the school. When a parent is considering enrolment, it’s likely that they will look at the school policies to see if the school will be a good fit for their child.
In light of recent amendments to the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT), any private school that has specific enrolment criteria, for example based on religion or sex, will need to ensure that the policy complies with the requirements of the legislation to ensure that no unlawful discrimination inadvertently takes place. The wording of such policies is crucial to protect the school and make it clear to parents the ethos of the school, and how that is implemented via school policies.
Fee payment policies are also important for schools so that they can ensure that fees are paid on time so that the school has the funds to to provide the desired services and facilities for students. While the aim of schools is not to make a profit, without the payment of school fees it would likely become unviable for the school to operate.
Students and families
Disputes regarding student issues, including enrolment but also extending to policies about the day-to-day conduct of students and families, often arise due to different interpretations about policies. The more general or ambiguous a policy is, the higher the risk of different interpretations and disputes. To be effective, policies must be clear and concise, and be communicated or readily available to those people required to follow the policy.
Finally, student policies must be enforceable. It is important that a key term of any enrolment agreement is that the student and the parents or guardians agree to comply with the policies of the school, which may vary from time to time.
Schools engage both teaching and administrative staff. They also often have parents, grandparents and other external parties volunteer on a regular basis. It’s crucial that schools have clear and detailed policies to ensure that it complies with its duty of care to staff and volunteers, as well as students, at all times. A sound suite of policies should cover workplace health and safety, bullying, grievances and complaints, as well as internal processes such as taking leave, overtime and security.
The Fair Work Commission has clearly indicated that all employers should have clear and tailored policies, and that the right policy will provide an employer with protection in the case of an employee dispute. However, to be enforceable a school must be able to show that it clearly communicated the policy to employees.
A recent case
In Catherine Kelly v The Hills Christian Community School Inc T/A The Hills Christian Community School  FWC 4134, a teacher who was dismissed for allegedly breaching a school policy was reinstated following an unfair dismissal claim.
The employee, Ms Kelly, provided a student with known food allergies with a chocolate bar during a class birthday celebration. The student suffered a mild allergic reaction. The school dismissed Ms Kelly for serious misconduct on the basis that she breached a procedure that the student in question only be given food supplied by the student’s parents, and in doing so breached the school’s code of conduct.
The Commission was not satisfied that Ms Kelly was instructed by the school about the procedure, and the school was unable to demonstrate that Ms Kelly was notified of the policy in writing. The Commission accepted Ms Kelly’s evidence that she had been told that the student could be given food not supplied by his parents as long as the ingredients were checked, and she had acted consistently with this procedure.
This case highlights the importance of having relevant, clear and, where necessary, strict policies in a school to ensure high standards and to justify dismissal if required. If the school in this case had a clear written policy about providing food to students with allergies, or a specific allergy plan for that student, and had notified the teacher in writing (for example an email attaching the allergy plan), then the incident may not have occurred in the first place.
How can we help?
Our Business Law and Employment Law teams can help you if you’d like to find out more about tailoring your in-house policies to your individual needs and circumstances. For advice, please contact us on 02 6285 8000 or by email.