Paying for a wealth of experience

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Any review of the power of governing bodies should include a mandatory local authority clerk, says Joan Dalton

I must admit that when local management of schools was first introduced, we panicked. Suddenly we were told that all the services which the local authority had previously provided free to schools - training for governors, the library service, music lessons, computer support, etc, would all have to be paid for either by subscription or at point of use.

When we asked, "How are we supposed to pay for all this?", the answer was: "The money is in your budget." But the amount allocated to buy-in services seemed to bear no relation to the cost of maintaining our pre-LMS standards. Something had to go. In fact lots of things had to go, and one of the first for us was the local authority clerk.

I forget what the charges were at that time, but the current going rate for a school like mine with 12 governors is Pounds 1,200 a year to cover one meeting a term. This seemed to us then to be exorbitant, and still does. We persuaded our school secretary to take on the job for a quarter of this amount. Other schools I know use parent volunteers, serving governors, or moonlighting local authority personnel. Only 10 per cent of schools in this county buy-in to the LEA clerking service.

I think we may all have made a serious mistake. Although it is useful to have a clerk who is always available to discuss agendas and prepare papers for meetings, who knows the school and is committed to its success, the secretary can never provide independent advice and her dual role may lead to conflicts of interest and problems with confidentiality. The local authority charge is not merely for the five to ten hours work involved in each meeting, but for the wealth of knowledge and experience a good clerk brings to the job.

My own governing body was fortunate for three years in having a parent governor who was an officer in a neighbouring education authority. We were able to check that we were following correct procedures and avoiding legal pitfalls when discussing appointments, formulating new policies and managing the budget. He's gone and we miss him. I have worked hard to keep up to date, but I am, at best, a well-informed amateur.

It seems to me that if the power and responsibilities of governing bodies are to be reviewed, serious consideration should be given to making it mandatory for authorities to provide well-trained clerks to attend business meetings, annual meetings for parents, staff disciplinary proceedings, exclusion committees, complaints panels and appointment interviews.

An independent person who could not only provide advice when asked, but could intervene to stop bad practice would be invaluable. Many of the questions that Joan Sallis deals with are about correct procedures - "Can the head dictate who should serve on committees?", "How can we put items on the agenda?". Questions which a competent clerk could answer on the spot.

My memory of our "free" local authority clerk is that if she did not have an immediate answer, she always knew a man who did and would get back to us quickly with authoritative advice.

Of course there are pitfalls. A professional clerk would have to be punctilious about only dictating processs and not influencing the outcome of any discussion. A governing body should still be able to reach its own decisions, however crackbrained, as long as it did not infringe the law in doing so. Like lay magistrates, we need professional advice. Shorthand typing skills alone are not enough. But I still do not want to have to pay Pounds 1,200 out of the school's budget for the privilege.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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