School Improvement and Governance Network

School Councils

Planning and policy - introduction

VICCSO has worked with many school councils, principals and communities in developing strategic plans and policies. As developed by principals and school councils, planning and good policies enhance a school's capacity to control its own destiny. What follows are good practice examples from schools in their efforts to be creative and focused on local challenges with their planning and policy making. For more information, please phone VICCSO on 0402 152 634.

Strategic plans

A school council must develop a strategic plan, the focus of which is to improve student learning outcomes, within the legal and policy frameworks set by Government and the Department.

A school's strategic plan is a short document that sets out:

  • The school's vision, goals and targets for the next 4 years
  • How staff and students are expected to behave (the values)
  • The major strategies for achieving the goals and targets.

What is its purpose?

The strategic plan is the central point around which a whole school community can focus and unite in order to improve learning outcomes. To do this, school councils consult with their communities and prepare the plan from the very beginning.

As principals, teachers and parents develop many innovative practices with these challenges, there needs to be better systemwide sharing of good practices such as how best to promote school community participation in planning.

How school planning evolves

The broader the scope of the plan, the more strategic it is. For example, clusters of primary and secondary schools have used their planning to develop a P-12 approach to education. Such plans focus as much on P-12 educational change as on important improvement and literacy and numeracy targets.

School councils thus prepare for improvements as well as developing 'what could be' (such as a P-12 model of schooling). A plan may also include other 'big ideas'. Many school councils start this by leading a school community conversation.

Using goals to build partnerships

Schools also develop shared school-family-community goals in their plans. For example, based on the Melbourne Declaration, the shared goal of improving opportunities at school and in the home and community for all students to become:

  • Successful learners
  • Confident and creative individuals
  • Active and informed citizens.

A shared goal in a secondary school may be to build positive, confident adolescent identity and self-esteem. As the basis for parents, teachers and students really working together. Some schools have developed goals that depend on strong partnerships that involve not only schools and families working together but also community organisations such as sporting clubs.

Taking the time to build truly shared goals is all-important. If worked on properly, a school's strategic planning can:

  • Separate the important from the urgent
  • Develop ideas for realistic, incremental improvement but that are also bold in the commitment to real change over time
  • Build unity of purpose between the principal, staff and school council and establish priorities around truly shared goals.

Good practices with planning

In preparing a strategic plan that is made up of truly shared goals, good practices that we have seen in schools include:

  • Assessing community needs and issues through a community survey that can involve all parents, teachers and students
  • A series of facilitated forums to maximise teacher, parent and student participation in the planning process
  • Making sure that school council sub-committees have adequate time to prepare their thoughts and input into the plan
  • Developing broad agreement about the goals and strategies that are most likely to improve learning outcomes for all students.

The strong view put by many principals and schools is this: a community-friendly plan reflects staff and community thinking and input as much as an education department's priorities. Only such a plan leads to improved outcomes for all. If, however, a plan is prepared with token staff and community 'buy-in' at the end, its impact may be minimal.

To develop shared goals, a strong, highly experienced facilitator is also obviously important. Whether the facilitator is an insider or outsider, the choice should be acceptable to everyone.

Organising leadership teams around the goals

The guiding principle that many principals and school community members tell us is: less is more! Better to have, say, five high-level teams aligned to the goals in a plan than too many micro-committees. As developed by many principals, teachers, parents, students and school councils, examples of high-level, whole school community teams built around clear, shared goals include:

  • Pedagogy and curriculum team (and team leader who may be the principal, an assistant principal or teacher)
  • Learning technologies team (and team leader who may be a teacher or parent with professional ICT experience )
  • Education for sustainability team (and team leader)
  • P-12 cluster and community partnerships team (and team leader)
  • Student participation team (and team leader).

As principals and school councils suugest, the school's leadership and governance structure and strategic plan and goals are then in sync with each other.

When principal class members, teachers, parents and students are actively involved in local decision-making and share some team leadership roles (e.g., in a team such as learning technologies), what is likely to emerge is a more strategic, whole school community focus on how best to improve learning outcomes. Thus, for example, a team built around a goal such as education for sustainability may unite teachers, staff, parents, students and community members and obtain information about:

  • Current school policy and operations (e.g., waste, water, energy, grounds, gardens and the canteen)
  • Curriculum planning
  • Teaching and learning
  • School-family-community partnerships
  • Local community issues that can be addressed (such as biodiversity and habitat improvement)
  • What policy and action plan may need to be developed.

Likewise, if the optimum use of technology is a key, shared goal, a teacher, parent and student team may put together a technology plan that includes:

  • Our shared goal and objectives for information and communication technology (ICT)
  • Learning, curriculum and ICT links
  • Family and community partnerships
  • Home-school communication
  • Infrastructure, support and PD
  • Action plan by year
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Budget and funding strategies
  • Evaluation and review.

It is important to emphasise that such school community teams are not time-consuming. Some of the most effective teams that we have seen in schools may only meet three to four times a year. Team leaders would obviously meet routinely with the principal.

School policies

What is a policy?

A policy is guiding idea designed to influence school decisions, actions and practice. Examples of school policies include:

  • Curriculum, education or teaching and learning
  • Health and well-being
  • School-family-community partnerships
  • Homework or home-school links
  • Student participation and leadership
  • Buildings and grounds
  • School relationships and anti-bullying
  • Technology
  • Eco-literacy
  • Complaints processes
  • Camps, excursions and outdoor activities.

Some schools seek to be specific with their policies. For example, a school may develop a policy that deals with a key educational idea such as 'powerful learning'. Or a big issue such as a coherent P-12 approach to learning or developing a school as a community hub. 

Schools seek to have a small number of specific policies that actually affect school practice rather than a large number of policies, some of which may be largely irrelevant or of little use.  

Why make policy?

Good policies are vital because they let everyone know what the whole school community approach to certain matters will be and ensure that there are uniformity and consistency in decisions and in how the school operates.

Making policy can open up issues and build broad agreement in the interests of a school community. For example, drafting a homework or home-school links policy can enable a range of people - teachers, parents and students - not only to a have a 'say' but to agree about and jointly promote good practice. 

School councils schedule policies for review on a regular basis. Ideally, teachers, parents and students should be informed of which policies are to be reviewed each year, the process to be undertaken, how teachers, parents and students can be involved and any agreed changes at the end of the review process.

Good practices with policy work

It is easy to think of policy as a departmental or government thing. The separation between policy and implementation can also act as a barrier to involving in policy making people at the school community level. There needs to be greater awareness of, and practical support and resources for, the pivotal role of school councils and school communities in developing policy.

As VICCSO found in its survey of school councils, responses to the question of what takes up most of school council’s time were divided between reports, discussion, finances, committee reports and facilities and buildings/environment. Only 16 out of 780 responses included either the word ‘policy’ or ‘policies’.

One way to strengthen a school council's policy work is to gradually make sure that each agenda item relates to a council-approved policy. By matching all or most agenda items with policies, a council can make sure that its work relates completely to approved policies. This can also assist a council to stay focused on its more strategic role and to monitor how agreed council policies are, in fact, influencing school decisions, action and practice.

Who develops educational and curriculum policy?

Within the context of statewide frameworks and guidelines (such as the Victorian Essential Learning Standards or VELS), schools are encouraged to creatively develop curriculum content, teaching models and strategies and forms of school organisation and governance that are suited to the needs of their students, with the aim of meeting those needs and improving learning outcomes.

A policy framework for powerful learning

The professional knowledge, skills and experience of the principal and teachers are obviously the basis of powerful learning for all. The sheer volume and complexity of educators' knowledge and skills - the mix of pedagogy, technology and curriculum - make it difficult for people who are not teachers to contribute. However, an education or teaching and learning sub-committee of a school council as well as other school community forums can inform educators' professional knowledge and help to drive thinking about powerful learning. It can bring together teachers, parents, students and critical friends to:

  • Exchange information and share experiences and perspectives
  • Pose questions and clarify viewpoints
  • Look at how the curriculum and learning can become more culturally and socially inclusive
  • Jointly explore the best available educational research
  • Through this process, begin to develop a shared, school community policy framework for 21st century education.

Critical friends are important. Schools are creative in this regard. Some invite people outside of education altogether - to add a different perspective - as well as members of associations (e.g., the Australian College of Educators) to be part of their teams.

Writing policy - a structure

To provide a structure for such policies, the Department has a useful framework for writing a policy.

A final word

The best examples of planning and policy making that we have seen in schools involve two things:

  1. Developing the right mix of top-down planning and policy and what is decided locally as a good strategic plan or policy
  2. Supporting the efforts of educators, families and communities to co-create strategic plans and policies (e.g., through professionally facilitated school community conversations).