Council-provided clerking for governing bodies can secure the fraying links between schools and education authorities, says Laurence Pollock.
TIME WAS when every school governors' meeting in East Sussex would be graced by two local education authority staff, no less.
The more senior figure represented the chief education officer while an acolyte minuted the meeting. But these balmy days have long gone.
Last year, the Department for Education and Employment's advisory group on governors identified the role of the clerk as "pivotal," not only for minute-taking but for "offering guidance on legislation." It said education authorities offering a clerking service ought to be encouraged.
The delegation of budgets in the early 1990s, however, saw a move away from authority clerking to a cheap and cheerful locally recruited service. But the issue has always been about more than just economics.
Dick Jenkinson, of the national charity Community Education Development Centre, which provides training in school governance, is concerned about a key factor driving change. "Some governing bodies are fiercely independent and would resent any local authority representative coming in. They want to be in control of their own agenda.
"LEAs have lost a tremendous amount in this process - they have lost contact with schools."
An East Sussex education spokesman claimed that with the "huge increase" in governors' training, the role of the clerk as a provider of advice is not so necessary. There is also a "fair amount" of guidance for chairs and clerks, he added.
Some schools in the area had put clerking into the job descriptions of new administrative and clerical staff. But he acknowledged that this could present difficulties if the employee wished to stand as a staff governor. From next April, new regulations will bar governors (and heads) from being clerks, although the practice is already frowned on.
Given the heady talk of "freedom from bureaucracy", East Sussex's move to schools' recruiting and paying their own clerks may seem inevitable. Yet there are good examples elsewhere of continuing authority involvement in clerking and supporting governing bodies - albeit as a service paid for by schools out of their budgets.
The recent House of Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into the role of governing bodies was told by the National Governors' Council that there were "considerable difficulties" in recruiting clerks. Other witnesses cited a wide variation in clerks' job descriptions. One education officer has told The TES of a school which sought to put 'tea-making' on a clerk's job description.
The variation in what the clerk does extends to authority-provided services. Leeds city council, for example, offers three levels of support - "administrative" (circulating agendas and papers), minute-taking only, and a full clerking service.
In Suffolk, nearly all the LEA schools buy a full clerking service and a number of voluntary-aided schools are also keen customers. But senior education officer Adrian Williams puts it down to the county's education culture rather than smart marketing.
Mr Williams says: "The authority has close relationships with its schools - there were never any grant maintained opt-outs - and even under fair funding the majority will want to buy all their services from us."
He says there is a "seamless" link between governors' training and the authority's clerks, who provide a chair's briefing at the start of each term.
The clerks also prepare a full set of background briefing papers.
"Governors' approach to circulars will often involve asking the clerk to "talk them through," says Mr Williams.
The cost to schools at present is pound;250 a year, although this is likely to rise under fair funding. Even so, there are requests to increase the service to cover committees.
And even Adrian Williams acknowledges the generosity of this provision: "I do not think you could set it up again if it were scrapped."
However, the East Riding of Yorkshire, a unitary authority since 1996, shows a similar commitment. Clerks from the authority agree to prepare and circulate agendas, take minutes, manage changes of membership, and write responses to requests for action or information.
Paul Butler, education officer for schools, confirms the enormous value of having a clerk as a link to the authority.
He says: "We can use clerks as a channel for information and also to get a feel for what is going on in schools. They can provide instant feedback."
Mr Butler says there is "mutual satisfaction" in the arrangement and two schools not currently buying the service are in a queue waiting to join because officers are already fully stretched.
The most positive testimony for this approach to clerking comes from Hertfordshire. The local authority offers a clerking service to schools but not from existing staff members. Personnel include retired heads, former officers and people like Diana Penton, an executive member of the National Association of Governors and Managers. She is already a governor of long standing and clerks several schools in the county.
"Clerks have a lot of support from the governors' unit for training and briefing," she says. "We have a clerks' handbook and a termly briefing by the authority."
Ms Penton describes her approach as "interventionist, offering guidance on good practice, 'you would be advised to do this,' etcetera."
The DFEE advisory group's plea for education authority clerking is telling - a hint of how things ought to be. But the financial and administrative independence schools have now been given is probably irreversible, so different approaches - including minimalist clerking - will persist.
The evidence suggests that education authority clerks can form a vital link between schools and education planners. But it may take another education revolution before they become the norm.
Bradford School Governor Service has published a handbook for school clerks, price pound;8.50. Telephone 01274 757115.