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When paper is worth the weight

Avoid bureaucratic overload by ensuring the paperwork is of sufficient quality and relevance, advises Diana Penton

The word "paper" has the effect of sending anyone connected with education into a frenzy. The immediate reaction is to ask how it can be reduced, but there is another question: can we improve the quality of paperwork?

Setting aside debates about whether records are best stored on paper or computers, the purpose is presumably to keep a record of events, discussions and decisions for future reference. The quality will determine how useful the record is. Paperwork produced in school and by the governing body can be improved.

Much internal paperwork has legal status and in some circumstances can have a serious effect. A recent example was the case of two boys at Glyn Technology College in Ewell, Surrey, whose exclusions for making telephoned death threats to a teacher, upheld by the governing body, were overturned by an appeal panel on technical grounds. Headteachers are aware of the pitfalls but governors often do not realise that the paperwork they generate has power.

Governing body agendas, minutes and reports are legal documents in the public domain. Even the list of those present at a meeting and whether or not an apology was accepted has implications which can lead to a governor's disqualification.

The following can all be useful in tracking down the history of an on-going issue:

* references in minutes to other documents which include their date and title;

* full titles of official documents with their status and origin;

* a note of the date when a discussion on a subject last took place.

Simple tips like adding to all policy documents the names of those who drafted the policy, when it was approved and the next review date, or making sure that the agenda item to agree the previous minutes gives their date, can save time. Similarly, evidence of discussions about a subject over a period of time can be used to make a case stronger.

For example, a governing body which is lobbying for new buildings or complaining about funding needs to show a serious commitment to the issue. Reference back to previous discussions give weight to later efforts.

The minutes of governing body meetings are one of the first things Office for Standards in Education inspectors look at when they are judging the effectiveness of the governing body. Those which show some or all of the following indicate a governing body which knows what it is doing:

* reports or committee minutes were "previously circulated and received";

* detail governors' visits with useful comments;

* demonstrate that governors asked about and understood pupil attainment information, the budget or staffing issues;

* show that the governing body plans its work ahead.

"Paper power" might be a useful new concept - but only if it does not result in additional training courses, long-winded explanations, heavy-duty analyses or more paper!

Diana Penton is a governor, clerk, and editor of the "NAGM Papers" produced by the National Association of Governors and Managers

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