Double agents

5th May 2000 at 01:00
They work for both management and governing bodies. In Wales, this has led to the introduction of touhg rules covering new appointments. Neil Merrick reports on the conflicting world of the college clerk

College clerks come in many forms. Some work solely for a governing body, sometimes in more than one college - but they are in the minority. Most are employees of a single college where, to all intents and purposes, they lead double lives. Some combine clerking with being a deputy principal, while others have senior management responsibilities such as personnel or, more controversially, finance. None of them are breaking any regulations.

A survey by the Association of College Registrars and Administrators (Acra) shows that 57 per cent are also employed by their colleges in senior management. A National Audit Office survey carried out following its inquiry into financial irregularities at Halton College, in Widnes, Cheshire, found that about two-thirds were also a deputy principal or director of finance. (Halton's clerk was not - his other jobs were college secretary and director of estates.) That so many have dual responsibilities is causing increasing concern throughout the sector. The audit office warned that choosing senior managers "may compromise the clerk's independence because of the scope for the clerk to be influenced by the principal as his or her line manager". It added: "There is also a risk that a clerk might have an interest in concealing from governors, or misrepresenting to them, matters for which he or she hadmanagerial responsibility."

So far, Wales is ahead of England is paying heed to the warnings. Last year, in a move which raised hardly any protests, the Welsh Assembly imposed strict regulations for future appointments. Since October 11, new clerks are forbidden to be senior managers. In addition, all appointments made by governing bodies require approval from the Further Education Funding Council for Wales (FEFCW).

Although the council had witnessed financial difficulties at Coleg Gwent, the Welsh Assembly appears to have responded in the main to governance problems at Swansea Institute of Higher Education. The House of Commons public accounts committee criticised the clerk at Swansea, a vice- principal, for not having sufficient detachment from the day-to-day management of the institute.

According to Arwel Thomas, senior auditor at the FEFCW, it is important that clerks are not seen to have dual loyalties and that any potential conflicts of interest are removed. Those who are also senior managers can find themselves in an impossible situation, he says. "When you get into a crisis, your loyalties are going to move one way or the other. Governing bodies can be left uninformed."

Clerks appointed before last October are unaffected by the new rules, although in Welsh colleges where they are also senior managers, clerks may eventually come under pressure to choose which of their two posts they wish to retain.

So far, the Welsh funding council has aproved two new appointments, both clerks who are not employed by their colleges in another capacity. A third appointment is in the pipeline at Bridgend College.

In England, the Further Education Funding Council has only gone so far as reminding colleges that clerks must be independent so that they can offer impartial advice to governors. Its latest guide for governors, published last month, states that certain roles, such as director of finance, are incompatible with the post of clerk. But there is no immediate intention of imposing rules on colleges .

Although clerks must be appointed by governing bodies and not principals, many have dual roles dating from before incorporation in 1993. This means they are likely to report to principals in their day-to-day job but to the governing body in their role as clerks.

Cathy Thomas, secretary to the English funding council, says it is important for clerks to have a strong working knowledge of their college: they can only get this by working in the institution - contemporaneously with being clerk or at some time in the past.

Rather than being as prescriptive as in Wales, the FEFC is relying on inspections to reveal whether or not clerks are acting independently. And it has no plans to insist on the right to approve clerks' appointments.

"We would be concerned if a college appointing a clerk picked the director of finance," says Ms Thomas. "We are not going to go around every college where governance is good saying they should sack their clerk because he or she is a director of finance, but we would be happy if they reviewed their arrangements."

Acra, the association that represents clerks and other non-teaching college staff, recognises there are fears about clerks combining these two roles. One in six clerks responding to its survey had a financial management role. But the association insists on the right of colleges to appoint the clerks they choose.

Robin Jones, the association's chair and the clerk and college secretary at Waltham Forest College in north-east London, says he is surprised the Welsh funding council is taking such a tough stance. "One would hope that the new Learning and Skills Council will not go down that path in England but leave it to independent corporations to make adequate arrangements."

The association's survey of 291 college clerks found 12 who also work as the principal's personal assistant or secretary. Mr Jones believes that in the latter case, they need to take care over who they report to on different matters - though he is not aware of any problems having occurred.

Sheila Barnes, clerk at Hartlepool Sixth Form College and personal assistant to principal Dorothy Lownds, says she has no loyalty conflict. "I have separate contracts and job descriptions which assists with my independence," says Ms Barnes, who has combined the two roles for two and a half years. "The relationship between the principal and the chairman is very open, and that helps me with the flow of information."

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