Just a minute please

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Clerks pay and duties vary widely and sometimes unfairly.

IN eight years as clerk to the governing body of Dunmow junior school in Essex, Hazel Bailey has never experienced conflict between this role and her day job as the school's finance assistant.

Many governors' clerks are employed by their schools in some other capacity, often as secretaries. But in some cases, it leads to conflicts of interests, with clerks caught in the middle of disputes between headteachers and chairs of governors. Or they might come under pressure from headteachers to "adjust" minutes of governing body meetings.

"Unless there is a clear division between their roles and responsibilities, and protocols for operating within those parameters, there will inevitably be difficulties," says Heather Currie, manager for governor, parent and member services in Essex. The authority's own clerking agency service, used by around a third of schools, avoids any potential conflicts by ensuring that clerks are never allocated to a school where they also work in another role. "Certainly, the schools themselves are increasingly uncomfortable with their own employees being clerks, and that's partly why they are coming to the agency," says Brian Mellor, a retired education authority official who is one of more than 70 clerks on the agency's books. Every clerk joining the agency attends three induction training sessions, as well as briefing sessions every term.

Essex is also piloting a qualification for clerks and there are also regular conferences designed to bring all clerks up to date with developments relevant to their work and to make them feel valued. Yet, as the recent Department for Education and Employment consultation document on governors' roles and responsibilities pointed out, current clerking arrangements vary widely. This applies not only to the amount of training for clerks, but also to what they are expected to do and how much they are paid.

Some act simply as minuting clerks and receive a small "honorarium" for their trouble. They include Hilary Pickles, clerk to the governors at Hart Plain infant school in Havant, Hampshire, ho receives pound;400 for attending six meetings a year and doing the associated minutes and other paper work. Other minuting clerks are volunteers. Jennifer Robertson has been taking minutes at governors' meetings at St Edmund Campion RC primary school in Maidenhead for five years, and says she does it for love. The work, she adds, is not very onerous and for a retired person who wants an interest, it can be fun.

At the other end of the spectrum, where clerks are required to give legal and procedural advice, handle governor recruitment, deal with correspondence and take minutes for governors' meetings, there are big variations in pay. School employees who double as clerks often earn less than "independents" or those working for local authority clerking services. Tony Poore, for example, a former governors' support officer in the London Borough of Merton, provides a professional clerking service for seven schools in the borough. He negotiates his own fee with each school, charging around pound;80 for a two-hour meeting and pound;8 for every additional half hour. By contrast, Susan Layton, who performs a similar full clerking role at Staunton Park community school in Havant, Hampshire, where she is also office manager, is paid at the same rate for both jobs. This works out at around pound;6 an hour - a lot less than a LEA clerk would earn. She argues that there should be some mechanism for evaluating each clerk's responsibilities and then setting a reasonable salary for the job.

Following the negative reaction to many of the proposals in the Department for Education and Employment's consultation paper for reducing governors' workload, ministers are now understood to be considering putting more money into clerking. But even if extra cash materialises, it may be hard for clerks to ask for more when the governors they serve are unpaid. As David Banks, a retired teacher who works for the Essex clerking agency, says:

"Governors are giving up their time and none of the ones I work with take expenses. They have all made the decision not to and yet there I am getting paid, which makes me feel slightly uncomfortable at times."

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