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In-house clerks - three words of caution!

There may be a number of reasons why schools use their own staff to clerk their governors’ meetings, but there are compelling reasons against this practice, summarised in three words: professionalism, independence, and support.

In 2017 the DfE issued the Clerking Competency Framework, which reflects and reinforces the growing understanding that the role of clerk is a discrete professional role. The old notion that “anybody can take the minutes” (itself based on the superficial view that all a clerk has to do is “take the notes”) is gradually being seen as wrong, and is being consigned to history. The Framework states what many clerks have long known, namely that their role requires a certain set of knowledge, skills and behaviours, in order to be effective. In most cases these individuals have undergone training which has then been tested, refined and enriched by experience of clerking meetings, and refreshed by CPD and ongoing peer networking and support. This is no different to any other recognised profession. The perennial difficulty in our sector is that Clerking, which is a facet of corporate governance, is generally not recognised as a profession in its own right. It is time for attitudes to change. On the basis of this, it seems unlikely that many in house school staff possess the requisite set of skills and knowledge to serve as effective clerks. This is not to deny that many who are called upon to clerk meetings do so with much effort and give a degree of satisfaction to their boards. But modern boards, faced with increasing complexities and pressures in their operating environments, need the highest possible level of professional governance support. I suspect few SLT members truly understand what this means, and lack the depth and breadth of understanding needed to construct a proper JD for a Clerk, and then identify a suitable person for the role. In many cases the person who clerks the meetings has a JD which includes the line “shall act as clerk to the governors” or (worse) it falls under that dreaded catch-all “and such other duties as may be assigned from time to time”.

A second pitfall facing school-based clerks is their lack of independence. A clerk must be able to serve the whole board impartially, acting as an independent source of advice, guidance and support. How can this be, if the clerk is line managed and appraised by someone in the SLT (probably the Headteacher or Principal)? It would take an individual with a considerable degree of strength of mind and purpose to resist a Headteacher (for example) who demands that minutes be altered when they reflect badly on him or her, or when they accurately record unwelcome challenges, or call for some action to which the Head is opposed. There are other ways in which an in-house clerk’s independence will be tested. They face a conflict of interest: will they do the right thing by the whole governing board and in the interests of good governance and probity, or will they keep the favour of their manager? The pressures can be very real. This is no imaginary scenario.

The third issue for clerks on a school’s payroll concerns their potential isolation from their peers. Teachers have their own arrangements for CPD, and schools invest in this, allowing them to continue to learn as well as to network with other teachers. This is just a norm of professional life, be it accountants, lawyers, teachers or nurses. However, given the rather low bar (in schools) of understanding around governance in general, and the professional nature of effective clerking in particular, it is highly unlikely that the clerk will be seen as having any priority for scarce CPD funds. But without CPD, occasional attendance at training courses, and professional networking, how can any professional – particularly the clerk – grow, develop, and remain fresh and current? In this, the odds are heavily stacked against the school-based clerk.

However valiantly the in-house clerk struggles on, and we recognise how hard many of them do strive to fulfil their role, the fact remains that in the long term schools of every stripe would be well-advised to invest a little more, in order to secure the services of a professional, and independent, clerk to their governing boards. 

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