A different beat

No band is better than its drummer, according to the old rockers' saying. The rhythm section underpins any musical ensemble, even if fans never learn their names. If the beat isn't rock steady, the most flamboyant frontman will flounder.

On any committee, the minute-taker is the foundation of effectiveness. School governors might challenge, demonstrate insightfulness in their analysis and orate with the eloquence of Cicero. But their hot air will remain just that if it is not ordered, edited and typed up by the clerk. It is never just a minute - it is the only enduring product of a gathering.

Technically, the minutes are the "property of a meeting". Early items on every agenda give participants the opportunity to redraft and redact. In reality, though, even if history's first draft is mauled when presented for consideration, it remains the raw material from which any revision is confected. And the vast majority of minutes are approved uncorrected.

Good minute-takers appear in many guises. One clerk of governors I worked with used to prepare the minutes before the meeting took place. She would then "correct" her version of proceedings to take account of any points where actual decisions deviated from those that she had anticipated. There was a certain ruthless brilliance to her technique, but the governors were left wondering whether there was much point to their participation.

Another had brilliant shorthand. Our deliberations were recorded with a thoroughness that Hansard stenographers would struggle to emulate - although finding the actual decisions in the elegantly rendered verbiage was always a challenge.

The best minute-takers understand the many functions of these documents. Meeting participants need a record of what actually takes place when they meet. Decisions and actions must be clearly signalled. The record must be sufficient to reassure the public and external agencies that a body is discharging its responsibilities appropriately. And decisions must be legally defensible. Lawyers considering a disputed contract to rebuild the junior school toilets or a contested staff redundancy will always start building a case with the relevant minutes.

If you're a chair of governors or a headteacher, find a minute-taker who can do these things and treasure them. They can rescue a badly chaired meeting far more effectively than a chair can rescue bad minutes.

When asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, John Lennon famously quipped: "He isn't even the best drummer in the Beatles." He was right about Starr's limitations. There are a few recordings, particularly on later albums, when Paul McCartney occupies the drummer's stool.

The same applies to second-rate minute-takers. The only solution is for the chair to take responsibility for writing up proceedings. To paraphrase Ringo, you can get by with a little help from your friends, but it's much better to have the right person for the job in the first place.

Tim Dawson is a journalist and chair of governors at Castle Hill Junior School in Ipswich

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