Backs are turned on quill pen era

7th June 1996 at 01:00
John Graystone looks at the new official guide for college clerks. A governor is unsure whether to declare an interest on a controversial matter before the college governing body; a query arises about the interpretation of quorum at a management meeting; an election of a staff governor has to be organised.

These are routine matters for the clerk of governors. Until recently, the role and duties of the clerk have been taken for granted. Two years ago, the Further Education Funding council Guide for College Governors devoted two paragraphs to the clerk.

Then came the shock of Derby College, Wilmorton. Publication of the report of an independent inquiry highlighted what can happen when the clerkship function is inadequately executed.

A catalogue of mismanagement was unveiled and the FEFC demanded the sacking of governors over what the inquiry called "a cocktail of disorder". Since then codes of conduct, increased public scrutiny, heated debates over declarations of interests, and Lord Nolan's eagle eye have all focused on the operation of the board, to which the clerk is central.

After some delay and controversy, the FEFC has published its Guide for Clerks. Under the instruments of government, the governing body appoints the clerk. These instruments state that the clerk should send out written notices of meeting and copies of the agenda, but they are silent on the clerk's wider responsibilities.

The guide attempts to fill this gap, with disclaimers that recommendations are advisory and legal questions can only be determined by the courts. The clerk must be independent of college management with respect to governance matters. The clerk should not be a governor.

Trust between the clerk and governors is essential. The clerk needs to ensure that personal interests are declared by governors and guard against conflicts of interest in tendering for and awarding contracts.

A conflict of interest occurs if any matter interferes with the independent judgment of the governor - easy to say but difficult for the clerk to enforce. The clerk also assists in planning governing body business and reporting progress on implementation of decisions.

A key role is the maintenance of procedures for appointing new board members. Elections of staff, students and parents, for example, need to be run properly to avoid legal challenges.

No recommendation is made on the most suitable arrangements for clerkship - a matter for each governing body to determine. The clerk may be the part-time appointment of someone who is not otherwise working for the college; a senior manager, or an employee from an external agency providing clerking services.

A survey last year for the Further Education Development Agency of 188 clerks found that 34 per cent were vice-principas; 37 per cent were heads of department or managers; 11 per cent were chief administrative officers; and almost 10 per cent were personal assistants to the principal.

In a few cases, the principal took on the clerkship function. This same survey found that 40 per cent of clerks were female - twice the proportion of female governors. The most controversial area - it led to the delay in publication - is the section in the guide on "whistleblowing".

The widely-circulated initial draft stated that the clerk, if unhappy about action which threatened the proper governance of the college, should "as a last resort" seek advice from the funding council. A carefully-worded revision states that this advice should be sought by the clerk on the authority of the governing body, or by the chair and principal "following a formal recommendation to the governing body from the clerk".

This compromise appears to have satisfied critics unhappy that the principal's role might have been undermined. A significant addition, which confirms sensitivities in this area, is the comment that the FEFC would not expect such steps taken in good faith by the clerk to be "grounds for disciplinary action".

The FEFC chief inspector's annual report for 199495 concluded that the sector needed to review the role and desirable expertise of the clerk. In 1995 the National Audit Office recommended that governing bodies should ensure that the clerk had sufficient time to devote to the post and received sufficient training.

And the parliamentary public accounts committee's 36th report recorded this significant exchange with senior representatives of FEFC and the then Department of Education. "We asked the funding council whether they were satisfied that clerks had the experience needed. They told us that they were not able to give this reassurance."

The publication of the guide ensures that this question would now elicit a different response. The guide will be of immense value to clerks and governors who are often unaware of the key part played by the clerk in effective governance.

It is a timely reminder to governing bodies to review clerkship. There must be a clear job description. Adequate time must be set aside for these duties and training.

The days of the enthusiastic amateur are long over. Groups of clerks have set up networks to enable them to share good practice and provide mutual support. One matter for consideration is the title "clerk". The word still conveys bygone days of aldermen and quill pens.

"Company secretary" has a precise legal meaning. "Corporation secretary" might be a term more in tune with the late 1990s. The FEFC itself has a "secretary".

Dictionaries often define a clerk in terms of being "scholarly" and "learned". The corporation secretary of the late 1990s needs rather more. In the FEDA survey, when clerks were asked to outline their key duties, the three most common responses were legal matters (43 per cent), committee work and organisation (40 per cent) and provision of independent advice and guidance (32 per cent). These fit in well with those outlined in the Guide. They might have added infinite patience and a thick skin.

John Graystone is chief executive of the Association for Colleges in the eastern region

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