Clerking – the Key to Governor Efficiency and Effectiveness

27 Aug

I        Preamble

Because Local Authorities are shrinking, schools increasingly have to rely on their own initiatives and know-how.  In this milieu, the clerk to a governing body, who plays a critical role, becomes even more pivotal to the efficiency and effectiveness of the governing body.     It is no more a role where the post-holder is expected merely to send out the agenda for meetings, take minutes during them and distribute the minutes following the meetings, important though these functions may be.

Clerks have the responsibility of operating professionally not unlike that of company secretaries.  A clerk has four overarching responsibilities.

(1)        First, the clerk must provide efficient and effective administrative support to the governing body.

(2)        Second, she/he has a responsibility for managing governance information well –recording, storing and retrieving it with felicity.

(3)        Third, the clerk is the governing body’s legal adviser.

(4)        Finally, the clerk has a responsibility for governor development.

Clerks come in various shapes and sizes, in both genders and of different abilities. In some local authorities that have had to reduce expenditure and retrench staff, there is an abundance of clerks, mainly former local authority education officers.   In other areas such as South West England, good clerks are gold dust and particularly hard to chance upon so that governing bodies have to rely on school staff members, such as the headteachers’ secretaries, to service meetings of the governing bodies.   In these situations, headteachers’ secretaries can be placed in invidious positions, especially if they – as clerks – may be required to give advice to their governing bodies which is at variance with what the headteachers may wish them to say.

The clerk’s loyalty is first and foremost to the governing body – not to any individual member – including the headteacher, if she/he is a governor – or even the chair of the governing body.   The clerk is an independent professional who is proscribed from dishing out favours.

Where the governing body finds it impossible to employ an independent clerk and resorts to deploying a current school staff member in that role, the National Governors’ Association (NGA) advises two ways in which the situation can be managed.

(i)     Have two separate contracts, one for the person in her/his role in the school and the other as clerk to the governing body.

(ii)   Ensure that the governing body builds in time for the person to carry out the clerking responsibilities – such as constructing the agenda, writing up the minutes and taking action following a meeting – during a normal working day, or failing that, ensure that the person is appropriately remunerated for the time taken to attend to the administrative governance work done in her/his own time.   Account must be taken of the servicing of meetings, which are generally held after a normal school day.

II       Role of the Clerk

(1)       Administrative Support for Governors

An effective clerk plays a leading role in organising the governing body business enabling the members focus on the strategic direction of the school and gives them a steer to monitoring and evaluating progress.   How time is spent at meetings is crucial to the effective working of the governing body. Accordingly, it is useful to have the dates of meetings set in advance of an academic year – for the full year.  The Clerk must take this initiative.

(a)        Preparing for a governors’ meeting

Administrative support covers a range of matters, the first of which is the construction of draft agendas for meetings so that the chair and headteacher have a basis for determining how the meetings are conducted.  The chair, of course, will have the final say on what goes on the agenda and where.    The agenda to a meeting will have

(i)     standing items, such as receiving apologies for absences and considering whether absent members should or shouldn’t have their absences count towards disqualification, declarations of interest and the headteacher’s report;

(ii)   items held over from previous meetings;

(iii) items arising from the results of action required from previous meetings of the governing body and its committees;

(iv)  items required by the annual calendar of governor business – such as the elections of the chair and vice chair, reviewing the terms of reference of committees and appointing governors to them, setting the budget for the financial year and

(v)    information items received from the local authority, diocese and government.

The clerk should advise governors that if they wish to place items on the agenda for a meeting, they should inform her/him at least four weeks in advance and provide briefs on what exactly they wish to raise under these items.

Where governors have problems with endlessly long meetings, it may be useful for the clerk to include the estimated timing for each item.

Normally, the chair takes the lead on dealing with the items except where it comes to the report of the headteacher.  However, occasionally, there will be an expectation that other governors lead on items, in which case, the clerk should advise them in advance of the meeting that this will be the case.

One particular item is often a foe of good time management. This is “Any other business”.   This item appears on every agenda and provides governors the opportunity of raising matters they want to raise.   A good clerk will advise the governing body of how this item should be used rather than abused.

(i)         Firstly, it may be advisable to change “Any other business” to “Any other urgent business”. This will preclude governors from raising items that they think of during the meeting about which they have not given much previous thought.

(ii)        Secondly, the clerk could request governors to agree that he/she should be given at least 24 hours’ notice of such matters otherwise the chair could disallow discussion of what they wish to raise.  This will not deny the chair discretion to enable the governors discuss items that are really important and urgent that arise within 24 hours of the meeting.

(iii)       Thirdly, the chair could ask the governors at the start of each meeting (despite the 24-hour-notice requirement) of urgent and important items they wish to raise under “Any other urgent business” and decide on whether they are really urgent and important.

A good clerk ensures that she/he has all the materials necessary to collate into the agenda bundle prior to sending it out to the governors at least seven days in advance.   This will include the minutes of the last meeting, the headteacher’s report and the committee papers.

It is an unpalatable reality that often the headteacher’s report is not ready in good time. The common excuse frequently given by headteachers for this is that they have been very busy and hence the delay.  However, in my experience, I have never known a headteacher not to be busy during term time, including the day before the governors’ meeting when the report is written to be tabled at the meeting.

There was one occasion when a headteacher (tongue in cheek) said to me that she delayed writing and sending out her report to ensure that it was as up-to-date as possible, knowing full well that she could always add verbal information to the report if it had been ready at least seven days in advance of a meeting.   One of the busiest and most successful headteachers with whom I have been privileged to work regularly gives me her report in very good time to be included into the agenda bundle for every governors’ meeting.   The saying: “If you want a job done, ask a busy person” is borne out here.

Tabling data makes for inefficient and ineffective meetings.  It’s a waste of governors’ time and even if they are good at speed-reading, they have no time to reflect on the information presented.

Increasingly, clerks are sending out agenda bundles via email and tabling hard copies at the meetings.  This is perfectly acceptable.

(b)       The governors’ meeting

The clerk’s role at a meeting is to make a record of the business transpired, ensure that statutory requirements are met and advise governors on educational, procedural and compliance matters. Where the clerk is unable to do so immediately, she/he has a responsibility to seek advice after the meeting and brief the governing body at the next one – unless the issue is urgent and compelling, in which case the clerk apprises the chair as soon after the meeting as possible of the answers.

The clerk should (at all costs) resist the temptation of dictating to the governors what should and shouldn’t be done.  She/he is there to advise and not take over the governors’ business.   This proved particularly difficult for a retired headteacher I knew, who decided to work as a clerk at a number of schools in the area where he had once been in charge of one.   He caused quite a lot of grief for the governors he was meant to serve.

So that the clerk operates as effectively as possible,

(i)                 she/he should have a place at the meeting so the clerk can see and hear everyone and

(ii)               sit next to the chair so that advice can be given discretely, where necessary.

The minutes are the clerk’s record of the meeting.   Such a record is a legal document and a major source of evidence for the parents, local authority, Ofsted inspectors and the wider public.   They are subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and open to inspection by anyone who wishes to see a copy.  It is now commonplace for schools to display the minutes of governors’ meetings on their websites.

The clerk should keep a separate (closed) record of what the governing body deems to be confidential.   Such records are generally about individual people – e.g. pupils, staff and parents – who can easily be identified.   The clerk must advise governors that items cannot be kept confidential simply because they are contentious – a not uncommon temptation.  Confidential minutes are filed separately and not available to the press and public under the Data Protection Act 1998.

The decisions governors make at meetings often entail action. The clerk has a responsibility to record these decisions in simple, plain English in a manner that the people required to take the actions are clearly identified and the actions are set out in a timeframe.

The minutes of each item are a summary of the discussion and the action needed – not a verbatim account of who said what.  If acronyms have to be used (in the educational field, we are notorious for trotting them out) there should be a glossary of terms at the end of the minutes. Alternatively, the full term must be used first before the clerk uses any acronym.  For instance, “Department for Education” must precede “DfE” in usage.

(c)        After the governors’ meeting

The clerk should draft the minutes of a meeting in no more than 48 hours after it and send them to the chair and headteacher for comment and amendment.   The NGA suggests that minutes should be written within seven days.  However, the sooner they are done the better because the goings-on at the meeting are fresh in the minds of the chair and headteacher.  It is also advisable for the clerk to write up an action sheet arising from the meeting which could be sent to all the governors as soon after the meeting as possible, no more than 48 hours after it, so that they are reminded who has to do what and are made aware of the times and dates of future meetings.

The minutes do not become a public document until they are approved as a correct record by the governing body at the following meeting – and signed by the chair.  When the school is maintained by the local authority, the clerk has the responsibility of sending a copy of the approved minutes (sometimes this is done when it is in draft form) to the LA for its records.

(2)       Managing Governance Information

The clerk is responsible for maintaining the records of the governing body.  The main information will be

(i)     the minutes and papers of meetings;

(ii)   governor specific information such as the names and contact details of governors, when were they appointed and when their terms of office will end; and

(iii) the latest versions and review dates for governing body policies.

For a local authority maintained school, regardless of how the clerk is employed, the LA requires the clerk to send in changes to this information as and when it occurs.

In an academy, the clerk may have to file governor records with Companies’ House as well make other returns. Where the clerk is unfamiliar with these practices before conversion she/he will be on a steep learning curve.

Once annually – usually at the first meeting of the academic year – governors must be asked to fill in a register of their business interests, which is kept on file in the school. This will be a requirement of the Schools Financial Values Standards. The Academies Financial Handbook requires a similar register for academies.

At each subsequent, full governing body or committee meeting, governors should be routinely asked whether there are likely to be conflict of interests they may have in relation to items on the agenda that are being discussed. If there is a clash of interests – pecuniary or otherwise – the clerk has a duty to insist that the governors concerned withdraw from the meeting during a discussion of the items.   Where any governor refuses to do so, the rest of the members can vote on the issue of withdrawal.

Governors should also be asked to record if there has been any change to their business interests.

Records of governance papers – including the signed, approved minutes – must be kept at the school for a period of seven years.

(3)       The Clerk as Legal Adviser

The clerk is the independent adviser to the governing body.   As mentioned above, if she/he is employed to work at the school, it could be difficult for the clerk where the advice to be given is what the headteacher does not want the governors to hear.    Local authority officers who clerk governing bodies also have to manage conflicts especially where LA’s policies are likely to clash with the interests of the schools.  The governing body’s interests (for the clerk) must be of paramount importance.

The clerk has the responsibility of advising the governing body about what needs to be done and, if possible how it should be done.   She/he must disseminate good practice.

This can be daunting during times when a new clerk has to warn that governors may be acting outside the regulations.   The bottom line is that the governors may or may not act on the advice. (Under the new regulations governors have a duty to receive the clerk’s advice.) In such an instance, it will be important for the clerk to record in the minutes that the advice was given albeit the governors decided to act differently.  The consequences of governors’ actions that may go pear-shaped cannot then be blamed on the clerk.

It is crucial for the clerk, who wishes to develop a measure of gravitas, to be cognisant with A Guide to the Law for School Governors and have expert knowledge of the school governance regulations and/or the equivalent academy documents.

In addition, a clerk must keep up to date with current, educational and educational-related issues – such as child protection and case law.   This can be done through reading, training, briefing sessions and membership of bodies such as the National Governors’ Association.

(4)       Governor Development

Much governor learning occurs on the job.  If a clerk is giving good advice and promoting sound practice, governors rapidly learn and become better at setting the school strategy, advancing accountability and acting as the school’s critical friends.

A good clerk will ensure that new governors are appropriately mentored and inducted.   She/he will provide them with information they need to discharge their functions well. The clerk will also ensure that she/he is available during and outside of normal working hours – on the phone and electronically – to support all the governors as and when they need it.

The clerk will be pointing out to all members where they can receive appropriate training.  Local authorities have generally been excellent at organising and providing development opportunities.  However, they are coming under increasing financial constraints.   Clerks need now to look beyond their local areas to find good training.

Bespoke sessions on set topics for a governing body are now becoming increasingly available.  What helps to cement governors’ relationships with the school staff is an away-day at least once biennially when – with a facilitator, they can thrash out a strategy for school development over the next three to five years.

III      Relationships

For a clerk to make a difference, she/he must work closely with the chair and the headteacher.   A recipe for dysfunction is where the relationship is not as good as it should be among the three.

If the clerk is culpable of damaging good relations, the chair will be required to initiate action.  Either the clerk improves and works in amity or leaves the school’s employment.   Sometimes it’s the other way around.

Over the last score of years, I have clerked around 40 governing bodies with whom I have enjoyed working thoroughly.  Very occasionally, I have found maintaining good relationships one definition of the impossible. Sometimes governors have asked me to act beyond my remit.  I was requested by the chair of a governing body once to initiative disciplinary action against the headteacher!    On another occasion, sound advice I gave at and between meetings was unheeded resulting in governors landing in trouble. When that happened, the clerk – i.e. I – was blamed.

Sometimes, decisions are made by a cabal of governors without the views of the other members or the clerk sought to the detriment of good working relationships.

Whoever is to fault, if the relationships between the clerk on the one hand and the chair and/or headteacher on the other, is not all that it should be, one of the three needs to make it plain that even though the governing body would find it difficult to manage without this particular person – i.e. the clerk – the governing body will have to make an effort from the beginning of the following month to give it a try.

On the other hand, where relations – especially among the chair, headteacher and clerk are working well and the three value and appreciate one another and the duties they carry out – the clerk will experience immense satisfaction, feel that she/he is making a difference and experience Abraham Maslow’s highest level of motivation – self-actualisation – when discharging functions for the intrinsic joy it offers rather than the remuneration received.

Feelings of pleasures are enhanced if relationships are spiced with a measure of humour.  At a meeting once, the headteacher whom I was sitting next to asked me whether I could read the paperwork I had and see the keyboard of my laptop on which I was taking notes.   Bemused, I said, “Yes, of course!”

“Are you sure?” she queried again.

“Yes, I’m sure! Why do you persist asking?”

She then sought and found a tissue, gave it to me and asked me to clean my glasses, remarking, “There is no way in which I would be able to read my paperwork and see the keyboard with those glasses.  They are filthy!”

Moments like this make clerking worth it and possible one of the best jobs in the world.

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