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Behind every good governor ...

... stands a great clerk. Karen Thornton talks to the first-ever winner of the national outstanding clerks' award

"I'M just a very small cog in the team," insists Jean Matthews, as she sits, almost embarrassed, by the riches of the prizes surrounding her.

A hand-held computer, a laptop, and cheques totalling pound;2,150 for her and her school are tucked under the table at Birmingham's splendid Council House.

They are the rewards she received for beating more than 400 other nominees to the title of "clerk of the year in the North-west", and overall winner of the National Association of Governors and Managers' first-ever national awards.

A slim, smiley figure, the 47-year-old is disarmingly chatty and friendly.

But the fact that she was one of only two of the 10 regional winners to take to the microphone when collecting their awards, gives an indication of the personality that attracted the attention of the judges.

"I'm absolutely delighted. I just see it as my job," she told the assembled representatives of clerking, governance and education, including Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools.

The judges praised her "impeccable paperwork", her "understanding of people and their different perspectives", and the proactive role she had taken in expanding her own knowledge and improving the effectiveness of governors.

"Jean has transformed her governing body in two years from what appears to have been a 'coping' group into a highly effective support body for the school," they said.

She insists that everyone pulls their weight as part of the team at 1,050-pupil Ellesmere Port Catholic high school, near Chester, where she is also the office manager. "We all work together to make the school a success," she says.

"Everybody works extremely hard but it is done in a friendly and supportive way. There is no demarcation, no barriers, no 'us and them'. We are a team, and everybody recognises everyone's contribution."

With a reputation for upholding impartiality and confidentiality, she sees her dual responsibilities within the school as a strength rather than a problem.

"It gives me very good knowledge of what's going on and where we are going as a school and an organisation," she says.

Her recipe for clerking success is organisation and preparation - "knowing what needs doing and getting on with it, and anticipating what's going to happen".

But it is clear from the judges and her colleagues that her personal qualities also count when it comes to providing a top clerking service.

George Bishop admits he relied heavily on her advice and guidance when he took on the role of chair two years ago.

He said: "I had just retired and was a sales representative. The education side was all new to me. Jean gave me all the advice, support and encouragement I needed - 'you can do it, George,' she would say.

"I have relied on her for advice on how committees are run, the minutes, and reminders of what I have got to say.

"She's got a nice personality and that makes all the difference. Sometimes we have problems with parents - Jean has the personality to calm them down."

Jean joined the school less than three years ago, after working at Liverpool John Moores University, where she serviced its senior committees.

She is modest about her background, but headteacher Peter Lee says she had a senior role at the university and that his school was fortunate to recruit someone with such "outstanding" experience.

He added: "For any post in a school, you need to understand that it is about working with people.

"Jean picks up on that. Whether it is parents, children, staff or governors, she understands her role is to meet the needs of those individuals, however reasonable or otherwise they might be."Sometimes I wonder if she couldn't do my job better than me," he says, only half-joking.

Mike Tomlinson, who presented the awards to all 10 regional winners (see TES, April 4), said good clerks were key to the efficient working of governing bodies.

Drawing on evidence from inspections carried out by the Office for Standards in Education, he said: "Where there is an effective governing body, there is also a very high likelihood of a highly effective school.

"Clerks also provide another source of professional advice to governors, other than from the headteacher, which I'm sure governors do need occasionally.

"I would like to say a great deal of thanks to all the clerks of all our governing bodies and the governors who do an increasingly challenging job."

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