Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Head hunting

Head hunting

SHA's consultancy service has helped more than 250 schools and colleges through the process of appointing a new head, principal or deputy. Richard Fawcett gives his observations on steering the organisation, and candidate, to a happy outcome.

"I'm fine about interviewing staff, but a new head? It fills me with trepidation." These words from a capable, understanding, incredibly supportive chair of governors reflect a widely-held view about making that vital appointment. For many schools and colleges, filling a vacant deputy or vice-principal post is equally daunting.

Time spent in planning and preparation, long before the day of the interview, will make all the difference in getting the right person into these senior posts.

The process needs one eye clearly focused on the appointment while the other is scanning the emerging scene for pitfalls, heffalump traps, snakes in the grass and the odd rogue elephant.

The first job is to appoint a selection committee - up to seven or eight including the chair of governors. The governing body will want to determine at the outset the degree of freedom the committee will have in determining the appointment.

At this early stage, governors should also be considering the future direction of the organisation and the strengths of the existing leadership team that will in turn influence the person sought.

At a preparatory meeting, the selection committee will want to have wide-ranging discussions about the qualifications, experience and qualities needed for the job and agree both person specification and job description.

The application form

The actual application is key in attracting the right candidates. In schools, head and deputy head application forms are sometimes generic, used for all applications within a local authority.

Much better practice is to have a dedicated form that lets a candidate provide information that will help assess skills and views pertinent to the post. This may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many applications don't bring out enough detail to form an accurate picture.

The application would be likely to include information on the present post and on the applicant's previous post so the degree of relevancy can be assessed; questions that allow for an assessment of relevant experience; achievements within or beyond the job; and aims in leading the school or college.

Incidentally, setting a Tuesday deadline for receiving applications seems to increase the number received. Sunday must be a good day for filling out applications!

Critical too is agreement on the dates for meetings, interview and ratification. Everyone must commit to being involved in every part of the process: missing the first day of interviews, only to reappear on the last day, is unfair to everyone including the candidates.

Interview techniques

SHA generally recommends a three-day interview process. The first day is primarily for a school or college visit and possible social evening with all governors. The second is for panel interviews and other selection procedures and the third is the final presentation and interview.

There are myriad variations. If only two days are available, the first could include the visit and panel selection, with a presentation and other activity on the morning of the second and final interview in the afternoon.

Regardless, SHA recommends that the finalists interviewed on the last day number no more than three.

What activities might take place in selecting the finalists? There is plenty of choice and reasons for using a technique need to be thought through.

There might be meetings with the senior team or team leaders where educational issues and how they might affect the school in the future can be discussed.

The students will be perceptive in assessing candidates: a discussion with the school council on topics that are important to them will speak volumes about a candidate's regard for the student voice.

Discussion groups allow the selection panel to see all the candidates simultaneously. A series of discussions, sometimes termed 'goldfish bowls', that are chaired in turn by each candidate, allows the performance of every participant to be assessed. Commitment, contribution, body language and quality of communication are just a few areas to consider.

Even if just one discussion group is held, chaired by someone on the selection panel, there will be a wealth of information about individual contribution and interaction in a group to help overall assessment of teamwork.

An analysis of data on school improvement will reveal a candidate's ability to handle information and propose appropriate actions.

A lesson observation, live or on video, can be used to see how perceptive the candidate is in assessing quality of learning and teaching, particularly if an initial report is written and followed by discussion.

Attributes such as judgement, organisational ability, problem analysis and sensitivity will be revealed during a carefully structured in-tray exercise.

A presentation to or question and answer session with the whole staff allows for assessment of presentational skills and the ability to respond to immediate questions.

A central and powerful set of panel interviews is always key in exploring candidates' knowledge and opinions. Topics such as leadership and management, professional competence, and communication and personal skills will cover the range of skills needed by a senior leader.

Making the selection

The final selection of the successful candidate is a process with its own special sense of occasion. If there isn't a clear front-runner, it could be helpful to list on a flip chart for each candidate all the positive and negative points the selection committee has gleaned from the interview and previous days.

Should the decision be easy? Sometimes. And very definitely, sometimes not. If in doubt, don't. Repeating the whole process is so much better for everyone than being unsure.

The aim is to get to a unanimous decision, in the case of a headship appointment, that can be taken to the ratification committee of the full governing body.

If that can be achieved, the selection panel and governing body will be very secure in their decision, and the new appointee and the school or college will have the best possible chance of a long and happy relationship.

Richard Fawcett, a former headteacher and SHA president from 2000-01, now acts as a consultant and facilitator for SHA courses.

Checklist to appointment

When a senior member of staff gives notice of resignation, it is clearly urgent to begin a process which will secure a good successor who will meet the needs of the school or college, work well with staff and lead the institution to new achievements.

Selection committees may want to address the following questions in order to make sure the process goes smoothly.

  • What kind of leader does this post require?

  • What steps are needed in the selection process?

  • How long should each part of the procedure take?

  • How many governors should be involved?

  • How should the new person's salary be calculated?

  • What should the advertisement cover and where should it be placed?

  • What details should be sent to interested candidates?

  • What are the criteria for selection?

  • What policy should be adopted for references?

  • How many candidates should be short listed?

  • How will the interview days be run?

  • What tasks should be set and questions asked?

  • What assessment will be used?

Support for appointments

Through our Management and Professional Services Office, SHA consultants have worked with schools and colleges around the country to help appoint senior staff. Consultants can be involved in all or part of the process, from determining steps in the selection process to sitting on the interview panel. They can also advise on legal implications, the job specification and short listing, and provide a comprehensive question bank.

Your SHA MAPS consultant will have extensive professional experience of senior leadership in a school or college and of the entire application process. The cost of the consultancy varies depending on requirements and length of time involved.

To find out more, contact the MAPS Office on 0116 299 1122 or maps@sha.org.uk After 1 January, contact maps@ascl.org.uk

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