Employing a new headteacher is, so they say, the most important job a governing body undertakes. It is one of the few areas where the governors have to actually make decisions rather than let other people make them and bitch from the sidelines about how good or bad those choices were. What is often referred to as ‘providing effective challenge’.
As a chair of governors this is your time to actually lead. You have to. First, the governing body will expect it. Second, you owe it to the children, staff and parents. And don’t mistake me when I say lead I really do mean that.
Of course, the governing body is a collective you make decisions as a whole. The ‘none of us is dumb as all of us’ doctrine that you’ll know well if you are on any board or body is just as powerful in schools as it is elsewhere. However, there is no point pretending that headteacher recruitment will work in the same way. Members of the governing body will expect you to do the leg work, that’s why they elected you chair, members of the governing body will expect you to listen to and respond to their concerns on their specific points of interest. Members of the governing body will look to you to let them know what’s going on. So, let’s dispense with the idea that this is a wholly collective effort, if you’re chair and your headteacher has just resigned expect to do the ‘recruitment’ – no one else will do it for you, everyone else will assume that you’re doing it and best of all nothing is really set in stone. Guidance, such as it is, can be, um, thin.
First up, it is 2015 (just to give this post context, you might be reading it in 2046 in which case things might have changed) Right now headteachers are retiring and resigning like there’s no tomorrow. Even worse, deputies are looking at the workload of headteachers and thinking “fuck that for a game of soldiers” (not a direct quote). There is, a crisis in headteacher recruitment because lots are leaving and few are applying. Keep this in mind, it’s important.
Get help. Immediately. If you are a maintained school buy in support as soon as you can. When the headteacher says “I intend to resign in the x term” before they’ve got the gn of resign out of their mouths Get. Help. You can sit around for a few weeks waiting for a governing body meeting or arrange an extraordinary meeting if you like Waste. Of. Time. Get on the phone to you local authority HR department and see what services they offer – pay for it. Call Governor Line, subscribe to Governing Matters speak to teachers you know and ones you don’t, call or email other chairs, speak to the local authority, contact your governors. Be a sponge for information and advice.
Record everything you do – the governing body will thank you for it when they realize how much shit you’ve had to do on top of answering their emails at 11pm on a Tuesday night about what shade of green you’re planning on using on page two of the recruitment website.
Arrange to meet with the senior leadership team and any/all other members of staff, speak to them and ask what they want in a leader, what they want to see from a new head. Then, after you’ve had the official meeting, go back another day and speak to them informally – you’ll get much better info from them this way. No one want’s to sit in a meeting with the chair of governors and their colleagues and say “the outgoing head is good, but this is shit, that’s shit, I’d change this” they’re much more likely to be forthcoming in person and in private. Make sure this happens. If they say the head is awesome pay attention to that too.
Speak to the school council or a group of children, let it be facilitated by a teacher, maybe ask them to prepare some thoughts or questions. The children will be brutally frank and are unencumbered by financial reality, but there’s no more honest assessment of what affects and worries children than speaking to the children themselves*.
Get an ally. The headteacher can’t really be involved in the recruitment process so put this to your advantage and use them in the recruitment process as much as possible (if they’re leaving on good terms, natch). If you’re really lucky you’ll have a deputy who can help you out too.
Sort your timetable first – there’s no point not doing this. Sounds obvious, but we managed to have a first and second round timetable in place that allowed for a September start. For this we had to start in January. January.
Do what is ‘standard’ there will be calls to be radical and fresh and interesting. If you have the time and inclination you can do this, but I think it’s a risky strategy. Headteachers looking for a new challenge are expecting to see an advert in the TES or relevant online jobs bulletin – projecting your advert on the Houses of Parliament might sound cool, but I’m not sure it’ll get you the best candidates.
Elect a recruitment panel. If you have an active governing body then this can be perilous as every member and his or her dog will want to be involved. They can’t be. Stay strong. Pick your five and don’t be bullied into swapping and changing it unless totally necessary. If you are a maintained school the local authority will want a piece of this action too. Don’t let them dictate to you unless they make good points that you agree with. “It’s your decision” they’ll say “we demand that you do it like this” they’ll also say. “bog off” should occasionally be in your repertoire.
Prepare for disappointment. You’ve done the planning, you’ve spoken to children and staff and parents. You’ve wrestled with the governing body and the local authority, paid for adverts and HR services, booked rooms, planned a recruitment selection process that suits all stakeholders – picked the menu for the governors lunch with the candidates (I shit you not more people will care about this than you think humanly possible) and set your deadline. Now you wait as sure as tick follows tock and count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until midday on the Friday of your deadline. The job is 50% done.
Remember when I said you should keep a paragraph in mind? Yeah, this is where the shit hits the fan. How may applicants would you expect for a job paying somewhere between 55 and 65 grand? Five? Ten? None? If you picked five or ten then I’m sorry to disappoint you. None is much more likely. We beat the average by one. Yes, one applicant. We had about ten potential candidates come to visit, of those it was felt that half had the potential to lead our school. Was our application process to onerous? No. We used the standard forms – basically a list of your previous experience and a personal statement. It’s just the way things are.
Judge your applicants against the person specification and not on the feeling of shear blind panic you now have in the pit of your stomach. To be fair it’ll be in the pit of all your other vital organs too. I don’t want to sugar coat this for you. If your one or two applicants aren’t good then DON’T INVITE THEM TO INTERVIEW. It is a waste of your time and theirs and you’re only doing it to salve the panic pits coursing through your body. On the other hand if they DO meet the person spec even if it’s is just the one of them you have NOTHING to lose by interviewing them. How will you know if they’re right with no other candidates to compare against? You won’t. Then again if you’re comparing them against other candidates you’re doing it wrong. It’s not Pop Idol, you’re not choosing the best from the group you’re picking the best for your school. Subtle. Different.
With fewer interviewees (I’m assuming that you’ll have no more than 3 and really I’m guessing you’ll have one or two at best) make your applicant day or days (yes, days) tough. Don’t be kind, test the living shit out of them. At the end of the day if they don’t want to climb into a hole and never go into a school ever again you’ll have failed. Well, maybe not that harsh, but along those lines. And to be fair, the ones who make it to the end of the day and are still smiling are probably the ones you should consider. I’m not joking about this, make it hard, really hard. Headteacher is a very tough job and it ain’t going to get easier in the near future. If you let the candidate off because you think the interview process is tricky you’re letting the school down. Don’t be mean, be thorough. Very thorough.
As chair you should avoid trying ‘run’ the day but pick a strategy for your involvement. At various times you may find yourself in discussion with the recruitment panel – either lead off with your thoughts or stay quiet until others have had their say – don’t try to argue or refute any position that isn’t yours. Listen. USE THE PERSON SPEC. If you’re a maintained school listen to the views of the local authority representative they interview more headteachers than you – if they say this is good, bad or indifferent, regardless of your feelings then take that advice on board.
Our interview process went like this:
Candidate to lead whole school assembly Candidate to observe a lesson Candidate to feedback on that lesson Candidate to meet with out-going head and chair of governors (waves!) Candidate to lead staff discussion Candidate to meet with school council Candidate to have lunch with governors (sandwiches went down well) Candidate to give presentation, 45 minutes to prepare Candidate to be interviewed by recruitment panel (Two hours. TWO. I KNOW!)
At the end of the process you’ll know, if you don’t then I’d argue the answer should be no. At the end of the recruitment day I wanted to crawl into my fortress of solitude and sleep for a month. This is normal. However, before that I had the massive pleasure and privilege of calling someone I’d only met 8 hours hence to offer them a job. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. As chair you’ll be looked to for leadership and for headteacher recruitment at least will have to take some decisions. Make the offer knowing you’ve made the right decision and all the hassle will have been worth it.
*Back up there somewhere is an asterisk next to meet with and speak to the children. It’s easy to scoff at this as a paper exercise in being inclusive, but I spoke to the school council and so did our prospective head and both times they said things that were invaluable to the process. A collective of ten children aged between 7 and 10 had as much insight into the heart of the matter than I think anyone would ever give them credit for. I’m not going to say here what they said about the candidate as that is confidential, but what they fedback had as much if not more sway on my decision making than any of our other fake tasks. Anyone can look at Pupil Premium data and count Ever Six children on a spreadsheet then say the right things, what they can’t necessarily do is bullshit children. We don’t credit young people with much insight, but they can see and smell bullshit a mile away and whilst the adults are all politely ignoring it children are making “EEEWWWW” noises and pointedly asking “What’s that smell?” Don’t involve the children because it looks good involve them as an equal part of the recruitment process, it is after all their future you’re playing with.
If you’re a chair of governors and your head has just resigned please do feel free to contact me and we can have a chat – I mean, it’ll be largely me saying RUUUUUUNNNNNNN AS FAST AS YOU CAN, but I might be able to offer some calming words of sympathy if nothing else.
I should point out that there is a certain level of hubris to the tone of this piece and that’s because our process worked. The elephant in the blog post is this, though: it could just have easily not resulted in a new headteacher for the school. We had a plan for that too. Even if you think you’ll be successful have a backup plan and a backup for that backup. In total we had three plans for each what if? Even if plan 3 is PANIC AND RUN AWAY at least have it.
Of course all this is unique to our governing body and our school and our area so your mileage may vary, but hopefully there may be some nuggets that you can nibble on and find useful.
Speaking personally – I mean not as The Chair – there was one moment when it really hit home hard how important the recruitment of the right headteacher is. I was in a good work assembly listening to the children murder with extreme prejudice some faux hymn about friendship. When my mind wandered off and I realised how many people were directly affected by the decisions I was going to be part of. The staff the parents and, probably most directly, the children. Appoint the wrong person and it would materially affect all of them in some way or another. I didn’t panic so much as have a little moment, but I’d suspect I’m not unique in that regard. If you’re a chair and about to go through this process then good luck and God speed, if not, what the hell have you just read all that for?