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Clerks come of age

It is 20 years since the original incorporation of FE colleges. But in 1992, the role of the clerk to the corporation was underestimated and it was not until there were some catastrophic failures in FE governance in the mid-1990s that it became apparent that the clerk might have a significant part to play in the quality of governance.

Initially, this recognition related largely to "safety-netting", ensuring that the Instrument and Articles of Government (IAG) were followed. It wasn't until 2008 that the articles first set out statutory functions for the clerk, which included "advising the corporation with regard to matters of governance practice". In the same year, in its report How Colleges Improve, Ofsted identified key drivers and noted that in successful colleges, "governors were well served and advised by strong and independent clerks".

So what do the latest round of changes mean for the clerk? Well, the rule book provided by the IAG for FE governing bodies has provided a safe and well-understood framework since incorporation. In the years since then, the IAG has changed a little but, in terms of the fundamentals, not a lot. It has provided the backdrop for clerks' guidance as to how boards should conduct their business and how individual governors should conduct themselves.

Now that rule book is to be torn up and replaced with a slimmed-down version and governors will be able to decide for themselves much of what will go into their IAG.

All those involved with college governance will need to be aware that sweeping away the current IAG framework will expose the corporation to a wider legal backdrop. Clerks will be at the forefront of steering any changes and seeking not only to ensure a sound legal framework, but also ensuring that good governance practice is maintained.

Perhaps this is the point in time where the role of the clerk to the corporation comes of age. In future, the role will migrate from explaining the rules to developing them.

To take full advantage of the new freedoms now afforded, governance will need to become more creative and this phase of development will likewise require clerks to be creative in their approaches to governance models and practices.

A national study sponsored by Eversheds and the University of Huddersfield will soon be launched. It will seek to ascertain the state of readiness of FE corporations for the new freedoms and whether there is likely to be a mad rush to replace the IAG. Part of this study is aimed at finding ways to support clerks through their metamorphosis.

Whatever happens next, the clerk must be at the heart of any changes, working closely with governors and the senior staff. 2012 could well turn out to be the Year of the Clerk.

Ron Hill and Ian James are practising clerks to several FE corporations. www.hilljamespartnership.org.

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