FROM HATS TO HOTPANTS …… AND BEYOND 50 years as a Clerk to Governors

Peter Wilks

This summer, all being well, I shall have completed fifty years as a Clerk to Governors and I thought it might be interesting to recall just how much has changed in school governance since then.

In 1967 most services to schools were managed by local education authorities, the day-to-day ones largely through divisional or area offices.  When I joined the staff of the local education office that year as a section head, I thought I had my hands full with home to school transport, manual staffing, lettings, swimming instruction, a junior music school, road safety and (rather incongruously) special needs, for about 90 nursery, primary, secondary and special schools.

But then there was school governance.  The Divisional Education Officer was Clerk to the Governors (or Correspondent to the Managers as they then were in primary schools) of all the County and Voluntary Controlled schools in his area.  That meant quite a lot of meetings and they had to be shared out round the office.  I was quickly roped in and equally quickly, began to enjoy it.

In those days, at least in our LEA, special schools and nursery schools had no governing bodies at all.  For primary schools, there was a device known as Grouped Primary Schools Managers which allowed a number of schools in an urban area to be governed by a single body.  In our area, twelve schools were grouped in this way. To the best of my recollection, one Head was invited to report to each termly meeting, so each Head must have had to appear every four years!  Just as incredibly, these meetings were held in the education office rather than at a school.   They were genteel affairs; tea and cakes were served.  (I was reminded of this decades later when Michael Gove made his extraordinary outburst about school governors doing little more than eat cake!)  And the ladies wore hats.

Managing and governing bodies were largely made up of appointments by the various levels of local government, often on a party political basis.  There was then no limit on the number of governorships that an individual could hold and I formed the impression that some councillors did little else but collected as many as they could just so they could list them in their election addresses.  There were no elected staff or parent representatives.  Meetings were often held during the day, which did little to encourage participation.

There was no training for managers and governors, which gave rise to all sorts of difficulties.  I remember a chairman of managers who saw his role as doing just that – managing.  Amongst other things, he instructed members of staff to report directly to him.  In the absence of any LEA role description or code of conduct, we had to put something together locally and this had the desired effect (he resigned).  A story about a manager in another part of the County illustrated the same point about lack of training.  A local farmer (grubby flat cap and trousers held up with orange binder twine – the description probably gained in the telling) never said a word in managers’ meetings until one day, discussion turned to the gate to the school field and he burst into life.  “Now, I knows about gates”, he said.

There were no guidelines for Heads about the scope of their reports and although many presented well-balanced accounts of the life and work of the school, others were masters in diverting attention to anything but educational issues; buildings (particularly toilets) and school meals were favourites.  After a seemingly interminable saga about replacement of some outside toilets in which the managers had immersed themselves (no pun intended), I recorded in the minutes “The managers noted, with great relief, …… “.  The correspondent was relieved too.

There were no checks on manager or governor appointments.  It was with great alarm that we saw a press report about a man’s arrest for an alleged offence against a child.  Although not mentioned in the report, he was a governor at a local school.  It turned out that he had been convicted before of a similar offence, but of course we were not aware of it.  To the credit of the political party that appointed him, he was immediately removed, but had it not been for that press report ……

I went on to complete 25 years in local offices of three LEAs, the last twelve as deputy to the area education officer, and school governance was central to my work.  With the introduction of local management of schools, I transferred to other duties within the LEA, but at the same time I was asked to serve as clerk to the governors and admissions officer of our local Anglican high school.  There, we had good fun in running our own affairs during the period of grant maintained status, but I remember we looked askance at the sumptuous blue carpet with “FAS” woven into it at the Funding Agency’s riverside offices in York, at a time when we were struggling to keep our outmoded buildings wind and waterproof.   I served there for 17 years before  “retirement” to another part of the country.  But since then I have clocked up another ten years as a clerk, the last six of which have been in a remarkable institution.  When I was appointed, it was an infant and nursery school, but has developed into a group of three schools and a teaching school within a multi-academy trust.  With an inspirational leadership, progress has been breathtaking and it has been a wonderful experience with which to end my career.

Over the years there have been “how do I get out of that?” moments.  At a staff disciplinary hearing, I went to bring in the defendant and as he entered the room, the Chairman shouted “Resign, man, resign”.  Oh, dear!  On another occasion, I had to try to persuade another disciplinary panel that the lowest form of sanction (“advice as to future conduct”) was perhaps not an appropriate response in a case where a teacher had locked a child into a cupboard.  Long before the days of safeguarding, of course.

But there were lighter moments as well.  An elderly cleric was chairing an interview panel for a teaching post and welcomed a candidate with “Come in, Mr Brown, and take a seat”.  The candidate said “Well actually, Mr Chairman, the name is Smith-Brown”.  A quick as a flash, the Chairman responded “In that case, please take two seats”.  In the days when it was still permissible for a clerk to governors to act as clerk to an admission appeal panel, I explained the procedure to a mother before the hearing and asked if she had any questions.  “Yes” she said, looking down at her front, “do you think I should show a bit more cleavage?” I had stock answers to parents’ usual questions, but not for that one.

Since my early days there has been a host of improvements in school governance, but sartorial standards have not been amongst them I feel (but perhaps I am just old-fashioned, having been brought up in an office where we had to wait for a “shirt sleeve order” to be declared by the Chief Clerk before we could remove our jackets).  I mentioned earlier that 50 years ago  lady managers and governors often wore hats to meetings.  Imagine my surprise when, many years later, arriving for a summer term meeting at a primary school, I found the (lady) Chairman perched on an infant chair in a pair of bright yellow hot pants.

I also mentioned earlier that in my first job I had responsibility for special needs.  This was of course many years before statementing and all that.  I had to liaise with the District Medical Officer who was responsible for assessing children with learning difficulties and I was distressed to find that some were categorised as “ineducable” at the age of two or three.  And so these children were given places at the Junior Training Centre run by the health authority instead of going to school.  Fortunately, within a few years, legislation provided for these training centres to be transferred to LEAs and developed as schools.  With infinite skill and determination, our local training centre was transformed into a very purposeful, successful and happy school.  “Ineducable”? – certainly not.  In later years, I was privileged to serve as a co-opted governor of a similar school and I have to say that this was one of the most valuable experiences of my time in the education service.  And there were no cakes!