When you shut up and do your job

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Kendal College in Cumbria recognises that its clerk and vice-principal, Jim Johnson, who has overall responsibility for finance, might sometimes find himself in potentially difficult positions and so has been trying to reorganise its senior management team.

It wants to move Mr Johnson to the post of director of resources, while retaining the clerk's job, and appoint a new person to be vice- principal and take over the finance portfolio. Yet so far it has failed to find a suitable candidate - leaving Mr Johnson to carry on working in the same way as he has done since 1994. Self-regulation, he says, is "fine, as long as you do it".

"When you go into a meeting as clerk, you shut up and just do your job as clerk," says Mr Johnson. "The principal must respect the position of the clerk, who reports to the board, not to the principal."

Kendal College also has a finance manager, who attends board meetings where finance is likely to be an important issue.

John Hall, head of education law at Eversheds, solicitors, sees college clerks as being in a similar position to company secretaries in small or medium-sized firms. These should not be confused with college secretaries who, although frequently senior managers, may not necessarily have any financial responsibilities.

"What is important is the seniority and integrity of the individual who fillsthe post, combined with having the right person on a clearly defined job specification with clear lines of accountability."

Mr Hall believes it is wrong for regulators to be too prescriptive in the way that he says the Further Education Funding Council for Wales appears to be acting, although he agrees that directors of finance should not also be clerk to their colleges. Ideally, clerks should work full-time solely as clerks. Yet he recognises that few colleges could afford that. He says there is a danger that part-time clerks coming in from outside may only perform a compliance job without a proper understanding of the institution.

"Management and governance cannot always be neatly compartmentalised," says Mr Hall. "The idea that clerks shouldn't have any senior management role at all is counter-productive. I'd be concerned about having too junior a person in the clerk's role."

Tony Plummer, clerk and director of corporate administration at City of Bath College, is in charge of its personnel and legal and insurance services and is a member of the senior management team. The college has had a separate director of finance since incorporation. He believes that colleges should be left to find a clerking solution to meet local needs. "Incorporation was meant to make colleges independent," he says. "They need to make their own decisions."

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