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Let's hear it for the champion clerks

It may not be the Oscars, but the biennial prize for outstanding organisers is an accolade of note, writes Stephen Adamson

What is outstanding does not always stand out. Some of what we regard as excellent in the world of education is very apparent - innovative classroom practice, superheads turning round problem schools, feats on the stage and sports field.

But some jobs are done best when they are least noticed. They call for quiet virtues - efficiency, clarity, good organisation - the very qualities celebrated by the national Award for Outstanding Clerks, organised by the National Association of School Governors and backed by The TES and the Department for Education and Skills.

When the second of these biennial events comes to a climax tomorrow with the presentation to the national and regional winners in Birmingham's Council House, modest surprise will be a more likely response than gushing tears and overt triumph.

"I love you all" are words we are unlikely to hear, though the award has permitted the release of much affection. Schools and governing bodies that have nominated clerks have grasped this chance to express their gratitude.

Carol Woodhouse, who organised the award, says: "All schools that entered think their clerk is the greatest. They are entering to say, 'Thanks, we think you're excellent.' One of the nominating governors spoke for many when she said to the school clerk, 'Even if you don't get through to the final, we think you're wonderful.'"

The main yardstick is the paperwork. If you don't get the agenda and the minutes right, then you don't get anything right. A clerk who is a whizz at other things but neglects that is like a footballer who can bounce the ball endlessly from knee to head but can't kick it straight.

Those who got through to the final stages produced model agendas and minutes. Their agendas showed exactly what business was to be discussed, but also organised it into a sensible, thoughtful order. Their minutes struck the balance between saying too little and transcribing the whole meeting, and had action points that made it clear who was going to do what and when.

Clerks come in different shapes and sizes, so is it fair to compare an independent clerk who only comes into the school for governing-body business with school secretaries whose clerking duties are encompassed in their job descriptions, or with the well-trained professional who is looked after and placed by the local education authority?

Well, actually, yes it is - because there are disadvantages and advantages in all these situations. The school secretary may know exactly what is going on but may be too influenced by the head. LEA clerks who hone their skills in several other governing bodies may be restricted by their job descriptions.

Clerks who are part of the management team may have conflicting demands on their time. Independent clerks may have a flexibility in the use of their time that more than compensates for their remoteness from the hub. All clerks have to find out how to do the best job - whatever the terms of their employment.

Paperwork scored heavily, but the judges are also looking for other qualities - being a good communicator (and that includes being a good listener), breadth of knowledge of the law, keeping confidentiality, impartiality, keeping up to date with all the regulations, tact, supporting the chair without running the governing body but also being available for the other governors, and going that extra mile.

It's amazing how many clerks have all these qualities in spades, so there has to be that bit extra to make a worthy Clerk of the Year. That quality lies in appreciating what the governing body is all about, and bending the work to that aim. Carol Woodhouse says: "Winners are clerks who analyse the needs of their governing bodies and work out how they can support their governors. They see the importance of school improvement and understand how governing bodies work to it."

This award is not just to recognise someone worthy of merit, but celebrates excellent governance and acknowledges what governing bodies do so well.

Stephen Adamson is vice-chair of the NASG

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