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How to find a clerk of many talents

Margaret Riddell on one of the governing body's most important allies. Ask governors what they expect from their clerk and the answer is "efficiency". Governors like plenty of advance warning of meetings. They want papers in good time. They want accurate minutes. But while they may know they need a reliable clerk if they are to function effectively, they are notoriously unwilling to spend money on themselves.

By law, governors must have a clerk and they have powers to appoint and dismiss them. But there are no clear guidelines on appointing procedures. Most clerks get the job in one of three different ways. Many come through the local education authority, which specifies the level of service to be provided and the cost to the governing body. One or two LEAs still provide senior education officers to clerk governing bodies, partly as a way of keeping in close touch with schools.

Other clerks come through local contacts: by advertisements placed by the school, by recommendations, or through a diocesan board or another appointing body. There is an incredible range of talent in this group, from highly-qualified librarians and former headteachers to unskilled willing parents. There are also people who already work in the school as a bursar, manager or secretary.

Whatever their origin, governors need to make sure that their clerk will exercise independent judgment on the governing bodies' behalf. All clerks should have a clear job description - there should be no confusion with other work that they may do in the school.

In North Wales, for example, the headteachers who often perform the clerk's functions must be extremely circumspect to avoid a conflict of interest. So must a school secretary, who may feel her first loyalty is to the head.

Clerks have to understand the detail of the instrument and articles of government of the school. There are important variations, so a clerk to more than one school has to be aware of any differences. They must be confident enough to tell the head, the chair and the whole governing body when they are in danger of making mistakes.

One of their problems is that governors don't always listen. One clerk told me there was an awkward solicitor on his governing body who thought he knew everything. The clerk had to insist on his superior and accurate knowledge of education law.

Another said she tried to give her governors some relevant inside information, but in spite of several attempts, couldn't get them to pay attention. When clerks are serving more than one school, governors should encourage them to pass on knowledge and strategies that might be relevant to their discussions.

The election of a chair every year can create unforeseen tensions. Wise clerks will find out beforehand if governors want to hold a secret ballot and how. Fair supervision of the election is essential, and governors often need advice. For example, if a governor is not at the meeting, and someone wishes to nominate him or her as chair, the candidate's consent should be given in writing.

The governing body has the power to ask a clerk to leave a meeting, and can dismiss him or her. It's not a task they welcome, particularly when the clerk is a volunteer or an old friend. But inefficiently-produced agendas, inaccurate minutes, and failure to warn governors of important issues will jeopardise the smooth working of the governing body.

My experience of talking to clerks of grant-maintained governing bodies shows that their governors are aware of the importance of a good clerking service. Most have drawn up job descriptions specific to their own schools.

They have standing orders in place so that there can be no misunderstanding on procedures. Voting on resolutions and amendments can cause problems unless the governors can see that the clerk is giving them correct advice.

Governors can ask their clerks for reminders on dates of meetings, and early warning about things like the dates for publication and necessary content of the report to parents. Grant-maintained school clerks nearly always deal with governors' correspondence.

Salaries vary enormously. Most local authorities charge primary and secondary schools the same for their clerking service but there are big differences in how much they charge, even between neighbouring LEAs. Some provide a highly-subsidised service, others charge a commercial rate.

Schools which appoint their own clerks show the biggest differences in pay. Some use unpaid volunteers, some pay a small annual honorarium of about Pounds 300 a year, and a number of secondary voluntary-aided and grant-maintained schools pay up to Pounds 6,000 a year. Governing bodies which use clerks already employed in the school often include the clerking responsibilities in the job specification.

Governing bodies need efficient clerks if they are to be effective and well informed. If governors sincerely want to help and support their school, they should make it a priority to find, and keep, an efficient and knowledgeable clerk, and lobby for adequate training for newcomers to the job.

Margaret Riddell works with the Institute of School and College Governors. An ISCG manual for clerks, commissioned by the Department for Education, will be available early next year.

* The 1994 editions of the Department for Education's School Governors, A Guide to the Law, should soon be reaching schools. They include the latest positions on special needs, pupil exclusions, arrangements for becoming grant-maintained and health and safety. For the first time, a list of the policy statements all governing bodies should have is included. There are four versions to cover county, voluntary-aided, GM and special schools. They are distributed free to schools, but further copies can be obtained from DFE Publications, POBox 2193, London E15 2EU.

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