Policy statements are necessary for schools

Many of these statements are not merely advisable but demanded by law. For example, it would be foolish not to have a Health and Safety Policy that covers the basic legal requirements for risk prevention. Similarly, there are policies that cover essential elements of employment law such as equal opportunities, disciplinary action and fair treatment. This may not seem exciting but it is at the heart of running a coherent insititution.


Summerhill School has put a lot of work into its policies and continues to do so

They are the result of a continuing process of reflection upon what the school demands of itself and its staff. And, because Summerhill is a unique school, the policy statements it creates do not simply appear on the table for the staff to read and understand, but are contributed to and modified by the staff meeting.

Many of the policy statements came about through a laborious process of self-examination after the unsuccessful government court case that intended to close the school. It is a good testimony to the seriousness of the project and the mature meditation of the Readhead family, who own the school, along with their committed staff, that the dropping of the case did not result in business as usual. The threat was real and the reaction to it was a determined attempt to put things in order so that future threats could be more dealt with more easily.


Having a clear and coherent set of policy statements offers some protection against the willful ignorance of government inspectors who only see what they want to see

An example of this is the Assessment Policy. Assessment is a bugbear for democratic education. We are all aware of the extent of unnecessary assessment in mainstream education. Teachers complain about it, school administrators complain about it, parents complain about it and, needless to say, children complain about it.


Summerhill School has an Assessment Policy that safeguards the child from unwanted assessment: it gives the child the absolute right not to be measured and tested and pricked into order.

What kind of Assessment Policy can you possibly have if this is the basic criterion?

Well, the discussions of the staff with relation to the Assessment Policy were long and detailed. Freeing the child from imposed assessment does not mean there will be none. When I was the English teacher, for example, I was surprised by how much my students enjoyed tests and examinations. It sounds wildly improbable, but there was a number of students who asked for tests so that they could determine their level, especially in second language classes.


You cannot make an easy distinction between formative and summative assessment either. By the time students are in the Carriages ( the oldest group) they are most certainly looking for the grand summative assessment of GCSEs. Students want to get the pieces of paper that will help them on to the next stage in their lives, gain them entry to the college courses of their choice and enable them to move on.

It would be absurd to have a dogmatic assessment policy that denied them the accurate knowledge of their level in good time for them to do the necessary work to get the scores they wanted. That would be like playing football without goalposts.


Assessment is not an intrinsic evil

However, it has a tendency to turn itself into a sprawling octopus with a thousand tentacles. If you are testing this, why not test that? If you are measuring length, why not measure width? The more data the better! Put it all in an Excel document and use it to guide your practice in the future.


And inspectors, with their strangely perverse way of thinking, will assume that the children that are in class doing tests are privileged compared to the ones who do not go to class and are climbing trees. “It can’t be part of the school curriculum,” they will say, “”if you are not testing it.”

Teachers who have been working in other schools can suffer from an over-dependence on assessment as a working tool. It is not always formal.


I have worked with teachers at Summerhill who were unable to set aside their “teacher eyes”. You must have had the experience of talking to someone like this in your own life. As they look at you and ask questions you know they are making judgements about you. It is as though they were taking in everything you said and processing it through a filter to more easily put you in a box.


Neill said that teaching was a neurosis, and I would agree that this kind of compulsive, semi-conscious measurement is neurotic. Professional teachers find it hard not to do it even after you have told them how annoying it is. I have even had a teacher friend justify his aggressive questioning of children with the absurd claim that this way of “teaching” was shown to him by one of his ex-students who has now gone on to be a great success in her life. This is precisely what the Summerhill policy on assessment is seeking to avoid.


You can’t have a democratic community of equals when the teachers assume the role of measuring and testing the others. It is a kind of violence. It is the unjustified assumption of an arbitrary personal power. It is also a bad habit that the Assessment Policy seeks to identify and delimit. The school, of course, has teachers of all kinds and few of them will be Summerhillians. They approach the task of working in the school with a mixture of motives and prior experiences, just as teachers do in any other school in the world. Summerhill Policies help teachers guide them towards practices that are consonant with the philosophy of the school and provide the context within which they work.


Now you can understand how testing, if you will excuse the pun, the meetings that discussed the assessment policy were. They had to negotiate a position for the school that stated clearly in theory something that in practice was far from clear. The policy statement had to be a reflection of what actually happened at the school. It was not enough for this to be restricted to the classroom either because one of the principle defences of the school against punitive inspection was that the education at Summerhill consists of the whole experience. It had to say that the school was opposed to measuring and testing children in general, that it was an important part of their freedom to be free from assessment, whilst at the same time giving the assessment that children do want a place in the scheme.


I think most policies are statements of ideal positions that are rarely attained in practice. They have value because they clarify what the school is about both internally- amongst the staff- and externally- for parents and outside agencies. The two purposes of the policies must be kept in mind when discussing


Summerhill Democratics can help you with the process of generating policy statements.


In the first place you need to know what policy statements you need. It helps to have some models to work with before you start. If you don’t have a clear mission statement you should sort that out first. Once you have it, you should ensure that all of your policies are consistent with it. It is not inappropriate for your staff meeting to elect small committees to do the spadework in preparing and editing draft policies. The management team should accept that not all of the staff will have the same level of commitment to and understanding of the core mission statement and lead accordingly.


It’s hard work, but it is worth it.


Feel free to contact us for an exploratory conversation !


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