An effective clerk’s responsibilities to the governing board

4 Jan

I           The governing board’s tripod

The effectiveness of a governing board is dependent on a range of factors.  It is difficult to put these factors in a pecking order of importance.   However, every person on the governing board should operate with conscientious and probity by

(i)         discharging her/his responsibilities responsibly and

(ii)        acting in concert with the other governors to make the whole greater than that of the sum of the parts.

Three important people stand out with their noses just ahead of the rest of the members of the governing board. They are the chair, the headteacher and the clerk. The legislation prescribes that every school/academy must have a headteacher and chair on and a clerk serving the governing board. However, the headteacher may opt not to be a governor, though her/his attendance at the meetings is imperative.

  • The chair holds the reins of operations. S/he invests more time and effort than the rank and file of governors and is the port of call in emergencies.
  • The headteacher acts as the point of contact between the governing board and the school’s community, i.e. the pupils, staff and parents. S/he operates as a conduit for communication or (to mix my metaphors) a gatekeeper – ensuring that governors keep their noses out of issues of management.  However, the headteacher in the latter role – the management supremo – could also be obstructive – a definite no-no – and block governors from discharging their responsibilities.
  • Last, but by no means the least, every governing board has a clerk. In the halcyon days, the clerk operated as a glorified cleric (in a non-religious way).   Not so any more.

Much has been written about the role of the chair and the headteacher, vis-à-vis governors’ efficiency and effectiveness; much less about the role of the clerk.  The National Governors’ Association has spearheaded training for clerks so that they can understand governance, develop knowledge, secure the skills necessary to service the needs of governors and governing boards and act as the governing board’s trusted adviser.  It is a vital role for governors to discharge their responsibilities responsibly if the governing board is to act efficiently and effectively, adding value to the school/academy.

II          The black box of a clerk’s role

The clerk is a part of the governing board but apart from it as well.   S/he is not entitled to vote but the support that the clerk gives is critical to everything the governing board does.   Paragraph 35 of the Governance Handboos states: “High quality professional clerking is crucial to the effective functioning of the board.”

In May 2011, Ofsted published a report on effective clerking following visits inspectors made to 14 schools.  They came up with eight activities that they thought were vital.

“The role of the clerk to the governors is pivotal to ensuring that statutory duties are met, meetings are well-organised, and governors receive information in good time,” the inspectors wrote.

“A detailed timeline of activities, maintained by the clerk and linked to the school development plan provides a clear structure for the work of governors and ensures that their time is used appropriately.”

Later in the report, the inspectors mentioned that the effective clerk

  • regularly kept governors up to date with any changes in legislation or requirements;
  • circulated minutes and papers for meetings in good time, so that governors were well prepared for discussions and questions;
  • acted as a source of advice and support for governors, particularly new ones;
  • provided a link between the governing board and the local authority governor services;
  • relayed information from other sources, such as the Department for Education;
  • ensured that action points from meetings were recorded and followed up;
  • arranged visits and meetings, and notified governors of relevant school events; and
  • prepared a timeline of governor activities throughout the year, helping the chair to ensure that this schedule was reflected in the agenda for meetings.

In extremis, a meeting of one of the committees of the governing board may be clerked by a governor (albeit not the headteacher) – through, for instance, taking the minutes, while having the right to participate in the discussions and vote on issues.  But meetings of the governing board, per se, and those of the Finance Committee must be clerked by someone who is not a governor at the school/academy.

A clerk must carry out a range of administrative tasks for the governing board such as sending out the agendas for its termly meetings and meetings of the committees, keeping a register of attendance, providing advice, and writing the minutes for and taking appropriate action after them.  S/he must maintain a list of governors and their attendance record displaying it on the school/academy website.

Good clerks are well-versed in educational law and up-to-date with the changes to legislation. As in all other professional walks of life, training is essential, but so also is networking and subscribing to journals that provide insight into good governance.

Being armed with good and relevant knowledge enables a clerk to brief governors with the information they require to debate and evaluate the pros and cons of various options when making decisions in the best interests of the pupils at the school/academy.   In their educational journeys, governors not only need to know what to do, but also what to avoid doing so that they do not tumble into pitfalls.  The clerk is pivotal to assist in this process.

III        Dealing with conflicts

Governors are busy people.  Many hold responsible positions in their professional lives. They ‘do’ governance in their spare time for a host of reasons, some being altruistic.  They bring social, financial, intellectual and community capital and provide unique perspectives from which headteachers benefit.   Schools and academies often find views and thoughts of individual governors during and in between meetings beneficial, so long as it remains that.  This is because during meetings, it is the corporate governing board that decides on school/academy matters – not individual governors.  In between meetings, the headteacher is the lead member of the school/academy community with the day-to-day powers and responsibilities to manage the school/academy.

Sometimes, conflicts arise between governors and the headteacher.  This is often because the boundaries between governance and management are blurred.  Here is where the clerk can provide invaluable guidance and help to both sides and, in cases, act as a trouble-shooter.   But a health warning here.  I am aware that one clerk attempted precisely that and was shot down when his contract was not renewed.   Notwithstanding, the clerk said that if a situation like that were to arise again, he would operate in the same way.

The bottom line is that children’s best interests are of paramount importance.  The problem about this is that each member of the governing board may have a different view of what is in the children’s best interests – something like Brexit.  Discussion, debate and decision-making must flow.  Deciding on not deciding can, however, be the order of the day if there are compelling reasons for that.  The effective clerk will, in such situations attempt to make disparate perspectives compatible.

Meanwhile, the advice dimension of a clerk’s work means that s/he must be available during and outside of working hours – on the phone and by email.

IV        Finding a clerk

Where can governing boards find effective clerks?

An accessible pool is the school’s/academy’s own administrators, including the headteacher’s personal assistant or secretary.  It is cost-effective and quick.  All that is required is a rejigging of the personal assistant’s/secretary’s/administrator’s job description.  However, PAs, secretaries and administrators are busy people who work assiduously and sometimes long hours.  Is it right to expect them to give up evenings, albeit they can have time off in lieu, in which case their day jobs are affected adversely?

That apart, PAs and secretaries are viewed by governors as the headteachers’ staff.  It makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to give advice which may fly in the face of what the headteachers’ stance on various matters may be.    Where the secretary/PA may succeed in one role – i.e. as a clerk – s/he could end up getting dismissed for the other, i.e. as the headteacher’s secretary/PA.   It is dangerous, if not impossible for a man or woman to serve two masters or mistresses.  At least this is what the Bible says.  It can affect school/academy secretaries who take up the clerking role.

Several local authorities (LAs) have service-level agreements, where a local authority officer acts as the governing board’s clerk for a reasonable fee.   However, a similar problem could arise similar to that of a school secretary-cum-governors’ clerk.  The officer – on the contentious issues – must decide who takes precedence when providing advice – the LA or the governing board.

The third source for finding clerks is the pool of educational consultants out in the marketplace.   As headteachers retire and local authorities continue to shrink, many ex-headteachers and former officers turn to clerking governing boards.  There are also people from industry – e.g. solicitors, human resources managers and semi-retired senior school staff members – who are offering clerking services.

However, there are problems here too.   First, a clerk is there to provide advice, but the governing board decides.   A retired headteacher who took up clerking governing boards never quite made the transition from running a school to serving the governing board.  This headteacher would give “orders” to the governing board, which governors unsurprising resented.  Second, if a clerk is working at several schools/academies s/he must ensure that – like governors – conflicts of interests are declared.   Where this is not being done and governors become aware of it, they must raise their concerns with the chair of the board.

V         And finally…..

Governors do governance gratis – voluntarily.   Their roles are unpaid.  However, clerks are not.   Good clerks may be priceless but come with a price tag.   School/academy budgets are tight.  However, if a governing board is to be serviced at least adequately if not well, it becomes necessary to find the wherewithal to pay a clerk decently. There is no national guidance on what that price should be, however.  It is very much left to the market – demand and supply.

A school/academy governing board may well claim that they cannot afford to pay a good clerk they have recruited the contract price requested.   However, the question that should be asked is: “Can the governing board afford not to pay her/him that sum?”

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