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Just a Minute – Peter Culley (29th)

During the period of my retirement, while we were living in Telford, I found part-time employment for several years as a Clerk to the Governing Bodies of various local authority schools. This was not my first exposure to this kind of work as I had also been a school’s Minute Clerk back in West Yorkshire before we moved. However, Telford & Wrekin were just starting up and so I got in on the ground floor so to speak, and became one of the first group of trainee Minute Clerks. It became both a lucrative and enjoyable form of occasional work which I wish to document here before it fades totally from my memory.
Schools are required by law to have governing bodies comprising the Headteacher and a number of volunteer governors drawn from parents, teachers, local authority appointees (taken from the different political parties) and — sometimes – Foundation governors representing the church. They serve a period of 4 years (renewable for those wishing it) and they meet 3 times a year (ie once a term). It is an attempt to introduce a measure of democracy into the education system as well as holding the Headteacher to account. Minutes must be taken of meetings and are available for public scrutiny (though I never heard of a single request to view them) A Minute Clerk is employed for this purpose and is paid by the LEA (who recoup the money from the school budget).
In addition to attending meetings Governors may opt to serve on school committees, including the Curriculum Committee; Health & Safety; Finance (who may even be involved in the Headteacher’s remuneration); and Pupil Discipline Committee. There will also be a Safeguarding Governor ostensibly to protect pupils’ welfare in the wake of the tragic Sohan murder.
A rural Primary school may have as few as 5 or 6 Governors, while a large Secondary school can easily have 20 or more. The Chair is elected by his or her fellow Governors and fills a crucial role. Their relationship with the Headteacher is critical as they are in constant contact with them on a daily or weekly basis. Their management skill in respect of meetings is equally crucial. They need to keep the discussion relevant to the subject under review and – above all – curb the tendency to ramble on and on at the end of a long day, especially if this is followed by a major international football match on the telly that evening!
The role of the Minute Clerk is also important to the smooth running of meetings. He or she prepares draft minutes soon after the meeting and these are submitted to both Headteacher and Chair for final approval before being passed to the local authority for publishing. Clerks may advise on procedure and some legal issues (ie when is a meeting quorate) but in general are supposed to be neutral vis-a-vis meeting content. The agenda is laid down by the LEA and includes statutory items required by law. It is my belief that a good clerk establishes a friendly relationship with Headteacher and Governors and offers to clarify any queries they subsequently raise that are not within his purview.
My own experience as a Minute Clerk was extensive: at one time I was clerking no less than eleven schools, while also filling in on an emergency basis as required. Your position is somewhat precarious since a school may request your removal as Clerk from the local authority on the most trivial of excuses and there are no grounds for redress. I was suddenly appointed to one school because the Headteacher complained that the previous clerk’s minutes bore no relation to the actual meeting! As it turned out we got on like a house on fire and I remained her clerk until her retirement just before the Covid pandemic. On the other hand, one lady Chair took a dislike to me and got me replaced on the grounds that my minutes were “vague”.
The annual election of a new Chair can be interesting. At one school of mine Governors were reluctant to put themselves forward except for one who was only too eager. In accordance with rules he left the room while the vote was taken, but not one Governor wanted him (he had the reputation of being able to bore for England so no surprise really) A delicate situation called for delicate handling.
The majority of meetings were amicable but one in particular remains with me. Two Governors resorted to open warfare (I believe the problem was parking outside the school) which the kindly Headteacher proved ineffective in controlling. It became so intense and personal that I subsequently produced two sets of minutes for the meeting. One was a verbatim account of the slanging match and the other was a diplomatic summary of a disagreement. To my surprise the Headteacher (and the LEA) retained them both!
An additional duty which came my way so often I became something of an expert in it was the clerking of Pupil Disciplinary Meetings called by the school in the case of serious misbehaviour on the part of pupils that had the potential of transfer to another school, or even expulsion to a special unit for delinquents. Such meetings comprised the Chair, two Governors, usually an LEA representative and parents (if they could be bothered to attend). They were eye-openers for the novice, and it was often touching to note the lengths some Governors would go to avoid taking drastic action against some quite nasty specimens. In the end I often had to remind them of their overall duty of care to the rest of the school population.
In summary, it is important to remember that Governors are unpaid volunteers whose motive for undertaking this duty is usually to benefit the pupils and the school. The vast majority of Parent Governors do it because they have, or have had, siblings at the school in question. The job can be time consuming, especially if undertaken conscientiously, and calls for an active input from them. Those with financial or statistical experience are especially welcome. Some are inevitably out of their depth and a few are cranks or just plain silly. I left with a lasting respect for the majority of them, and grateful for the humourous incidents afforded by their regular meetings (or perhaps that was just me!)