Twist in the clerk's tale

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The job title may sound Dickensian, but a new course is grooming dynamic clerks for today. Sue Jones reports

Job titles are getting longer. Colleges are run by a host of managers, directors and co-ordinators of programmes, curriculum areas and services to every part of the community you can think of.

But the person who keeps the governing board on the rails is still known by a single name that has come down to us from the Middle Ages.

The word "clerk" may conjure up Chaucer's unworldly student. Or Dickens'

Bob Cratchit scraping away with a quill pen in a bleak and freezing office on Christmas Eve.

But poor obsequious Bob is no model for today's clerk. Not only must he or she make sure the board's work is done efficiently, but also, in the words of the Learning and Skills Development Agency's training materials, that it "operates within its powers" and "follows the proper procedures."

Clerks can be isolated, despite working in a large institution. "It's an unusual job," says Janet Cormack, clerk to Cornwall college. "However big the college, there's only one clerk, so you do need to have links with other people. It's difficult to know whether you're doing the job the right way."

To help them carry out their modern responsibilities, clerks have a new qualification the Certificate in Corporate Governance in FE.

The driving force in developing the one-year course, which has just been successfully trialled, has been the Association of Colleges. The AoC's Association of College Registrars and Administrators (ACRA) has worked with the FE's national training organisation Fento to develop a course for clerks using materials assembled by the LSDA.

Ms Cormack points out that a qualification that develops and validates expertise is especially important in educational establishments which exist to provide such qualifications.

Clerks have particularly welcomed the chance to meet and exchange ideas with their peers in group teaching sessions.

"You get very much involved in your own college and become very insular," says Richard Atkinson, clerk to Middlesbrough college. "Here you can see other avenues and best practice, make networks and ask for advice."

The course has two main elements explained tutor David Coates, who is also vice-chair of ACRA. One covers the legal framework and statutory responsibilities, while the other gives students the opportunity to look at particular clerking issues through case studies. Students are presented with situations they might come across in their work and asked to formulate advice to the governing board.

Technical advice is obviously useful but the group was most interested in improving their people skills when dealing with governors - and managing the process of governance, said Mr Coates.

"The clerk's role is multi-faceted. Most manage the admin well, but need other skills to help manage human nature. It's a people business.

"We did a whole day on behavioural theory, how different styles can complement but also cause friction. How differing personalities can create energy but in different circumstances can cause a negative effect," said Mr Coates.

Such scenarios can test the knowledge and expertise of any clerk. "Eighty per cent of the job is routine, but that 20 per cent is where you earn more than you're paid," says Richard Atkinson.

"Where there are issues of finance or a senior post-holder, the clerk has a big involvement. And you're much involved in accommodation - you have to make sure the governing body is acting within its powers."

Clerks come from a variety of backgrounds, such as law, public administration and human resources, so the course brings together a wide range of expertise and experience.

Like the students who took part in this year's pilot, the tutors are also practising clerks, which has made them "extremely useful and credible," says Mr Atkinson.

The pilot of the clerk's course was run by London Metropolitan university and the level course 4 accredited by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators. It is divided into three modules, each with about 10 hours of prior reading, two days of teaching and a written assignment taking 20 to 30 hours. There is also a final exam at the end of the year.

Course materials are provided on a dedicated website, which can also be used to contact tutors and other course members.

There are questions over the course's future. The Department Education and Skills and the LSC funded the 30 students in the pilot year, but future students will have to pay fees.

Nevertheless, the course is full for the coming year and there are 36 on the waiting list, said the AoC's director of employment policy, Ivor Jones.

The new certificate can lead to the ICSA company secretary's qualification, though not all clerks see this as relevant to their role.

The course also looks set to spark a debate about whether clerking should become a fully-fledged profession with a career ladder to match So far there has been no career structure for clerks. In the past the job was often done by people approaching the end of their working lives, or combined with another in the college, but now it is increasingly being seen as a separate occupation.

"Where's the progression for us clerks in FE?" asks Richard Atkinson. "I would love to become a principal or deputy principal, but FE is very insular, you can only get to a certain level."

Taking the course has led some clerks to hope that the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) will further develop the concept of professional clerks as part of its leadership package. Delivery of the course from January 2005 is now out to tender.

"I'm hoping that the CEL will take away some of those insular thoughts that you can only be a principal if you've been a lecturer. You don't say to a managing director that you have to have experience of the shop floor," says Mr Atkinson.

It does seem that the course will generate useful thinking about what happens to clerking in the future. "It's a dilemma that some of us on the course are thinking about," says Mr Atkinson.

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