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Have specialism will travel

Ian James works as an external clerk at three FE colleges in England, providing each with his specialist skills as required.

Mr James became a freelance clerk and consultant on college governance three years ago after eight years at Sparsholt College near Winchester, Hampshire, where he was employed as college secretary and clerk. He accepted voluntary redundancy when Sparsholt was looking to reduce its staffing costs.

Within a few months, he heard of management problems at Cricklade College in Andover and contacted the acting principal. Now he is its clerk. The other colleges he works for are Wirral Metropolitan, at Birkenhead, Merseyside, and Rycotewood, a small college in Thame, Oxfordshire. Mr James, who now lives in Stafford, has also clerked for colleges in London and Kent but gave up these jobs because of the time it took travelling to meetings.

His workload varies from week to week. He normally visits Cricklade College twice every month for governors meetings. In the case of Wirral Metropolitan, where he also attends some senior management meetings, he works an average of one day per week, either at home or at the college. "I work in the same way as an auditor by breaking the service down into a number o headings," he says.

Mr James acknowledges that some colleges prefer to have anin-house clerk, while others see the advantage of using an external one. At times, he says, it can help to be more detached from day-to-day issues than a senior college manager.

"I can ask questions in a direct manner and make sure the board asks those questions as well."

He says: "It is vital that people coming in from outside have a strong background in FE. The vital thing is to keep in contact with the college even when you are not there."

As the three colleges where Mr James works are many miles apart and not in direct competition with each other, there is no conflict of interests. "There might be if you clerked for two neighbouringcolleges," he says.

His involvement at Cricklade and Wirral colleges suggests that he likes to step in when colleges run into management problems. And Mr James admits that he does get professional satisfaction from helping to raise standards of governance. Following a reinspection at Cricklade, its grade for governance was raised from 4 to 3.

"If you're doing the job as a professional you want to be in places where there are difficulties which really stretch you," he explains.

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