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Clerking in practice: Part 1

Effective clerking very much depends upon proper preparation long before each meeting begins.

The newly appointed clerk might, with advantage, meet the chair of the board soon after appointment, not only to introduce him or herself, but also to learn something of the chair’s modus operandi, and any unusual requirements of the board, such as a particular template for the minutes.

Very often it will be the clerk who will initiate the process of drafting the agenda for the meeting, a few weeks before it takes place. Some clerks produce at the beginning of each autumn term a schedule of key dates, which can help their headteachers, office staff and chairs chart their way through the cycle of meetings. (It should go without saying that it is good practice for key meeting dates to be set as early as possible each school year, rather than from meeting to meeting). The clerk can remind the chair of the coming agenda deadline, and perhaps prepare a draft agenda which the chair can revise and finalise.

Having facilitated the timely production and publication of the agenda and associated minutes and reports, the effective clerk then sets aside time to become familiar with everything available to the governing board. At this stage, a note should be made of anything which could be sensitive and require recording as a confidential minute, or which might give rise to a conflict of interest.

Each clerk tends to assemble their own meeting “toolkit”. For years mine has included the obvious items such as notebook and pens (the one which is most comfortable for much writing, plus two spares), the agenda pack, my diary (in case they decide to set or change dates of meetings), a bottle of cold water, the Governance Handbook, the instrument of government (maintained schools) or articles of government (academy schools), and – believe it or not – in cold weather a spare jumper (because too many schools turn their heating off after 6, and one can become very cold as a long meeting wears on into the night). Clerks who carry a tablet or laptop will no doubt ensure everything has been uploaded, or that their school has the necessary Wi-Fi for using their device during the meeting (apparently, not all do have it yet).

If I may (and I certainly may, as this is an “opinion piece”), I will say a word about attire. Whilst I am aware we live in a seemingly casual age, I still think that a mark of our professionalism is that we look smart. For example, for male clerks, I suggest that a “smart” dress code equates to jacket and tie. However casually some of your governors might dress (yes, I know, I have seen some “sights” as well) I believe that we represent a professional service, and smart attire reinforces that. (I could write a whole article on this – but not now).

And so, suitably prepared, equipped and attired, the clerk heads off to the meeting. Punctuality is vital. To be late is to be discourteous. Once, as a democratic support officer in a local authority, I was a minute late for a committee meeting. The no-nonsense chair (former police sergeant turned councillor) started the meeting right on time - without me. I was never again late for a meeting, but to recall the incident still stirs shame. Allow time for traffic, finding the school for the first time, parking (never assume all schools have handy car parks), making a toilet stop on your way in, and having a word with the chair before it starts. Remember to turn your mobile phone off, or onto silent.

Finally, make yourself comfortable! You may have to sit for two hours or more. You need to be able to concentrate on the meeting, not be distracted by your discomfort. (Admittedly difficult in those schools who hold meetings in a broom cupboard, or in a Y1 classroom, using Y1 chairs). If you arrive early you can bag the best seat at the table. Get plenty of space for your notebook and papers. Make sure your writing arm is well supported on the table and that you are not sitting too far away from the edge. Keep a bottle of water handy, and perhaps a few mints in your pocket to discreetly suck if the meeting drags on (or even to hand round).

In these ways, you will be well prepared before the meeting, and should reap the benefits in your overall effectiveness as a clerk.

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