It can be easy to take for granted the tasks performed by the clerk to the governing body, but this role is crucial in so many ways, says Richard Bird.
It is understandable that the importance of the role of a clerk is under estimated, particularly when things are going well. But a school or college does so at its peril.
The Education Act 2002 makes provision for regulations which:
require the appointment of a clerk to the governing body of a maintained school and authorise the process of appointing clerks to committees of the governing body
prescribe the body by whom any such appointment is to be made and any restrictions or other requirements relating to the appointment
cover the dismissal of "any such clerk and the procedure to be followed in connection with his dismissal"
Colleges have similar arrangements, though not as detailed and not statutory. All of it often goes so smoothly as not to be noticed.
What is this role? Well, of course, the clerk - as has been the case since the Middle Ages - is a note taker, and this matters. Never mind what people thought they said or thought was decided, the approved minutes are what count when it comes to the proof.
It is quite alarming to discover how much trouble arises for members and their institutions because of a failure to minute important decisions - on policies, processes to be followed and the delegation of the governing body's powers.
ASCL field officers are all too familiar with a situation where a person is found to be exercising powers without any right, sometimes because no such power exists but more often because there is no minute that says such power has been delegated.
Seen to be fair
Then there is the role of organising meetings. The agenda often determines the meeting. To prevent conflict, liaison with both the chair and the head or principal is vital. And, yes, organisation needs to be in accordance with regulations and governors' standing orders, for example, in giving notice of meetings.
However, this apparently routine function becomes crucial in the relationship with parents when dealing with complaints and exclusions. The clerk's communications and demeanour can have a significant role in ensuring that, not only are the proceedings fair, but they are seen and felt to be fair.
The minuting function, too, becomes a matter of great importance. The governors' decision on an exclusion can be challenged subsequently if the letter to parents does not make it clear that the parents' representations were seriously considered and why they might have been rejected.
Reasons do not have to be exhaustive or laid out like a Supreme Court judgement but they must make it clear why representations did not prevail. If and when parents' complaints can be taken to the local government ombudsman, recorded reasons for accepting or not accepting complaints will also become vital evidence.
"Mrs X is an absolutely excellent clerk... she is also PA to the head." This example of unacceptable practice from an investigation of an Independent Admissions Appeals Panel raises the question of who the clerk should be. Colleges are used to finding a clerk with previous experience. Independent schools often use the bursar, who sometimes has a direct accountability to the governing body.
Before Local Management of Schools (LMS) hollowed out local authorities (LAs), clerks for maintained schools were usually LA officers. It was sometimes difficult for them to know exactly where their loyalties lay.
The head's PA may have a similar, if not a greater, difficulty, particularly where parents are in conflict with the school, and there may be good reasons to decide not to use a member of staff, however convenient it may be.Then again, the clerk has an information function, taking the pressure off the head or principal to be the fount of all knowledge and updating.
Finally, there is the crucial function of saying 'no'. It can be tempting for governors to transpose what they would do in the organisations they work in, run or own. Trouble could often have been avoided had the clerk said, "I don't think you can do that. We ought to get advice."
Similarly, a head or principal convinced that a course of action is self-evidently for the benefit of the school can all too easily slide into doing whatever it is, without being clear as to whether the power to do it has been delegated or even if the power to do it exists at all.
Colleges sometimes have a procedure for the clerk to intervene or report outside the college in such situations. Schools might benefit from a similar provision in their governors' standing orders. A good clerk is a treasure and should be carefully chosen, invested in through CPD and listened to carefully.
© 2013 Association of School and College Leaders