Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Interview in question


During my first interview for a teaching job in 1981, the headteacher tossed my application across a table, accompanied by a derogatory remark about how unsuited I was to working in a tough Sheffield comprehensive. I didn't get the job.

Over the years, I've had more interviews than I care to remember - but the one constant theme has been that anything can, and often does, happen.

The Sheffield experience proved a fairly accurate predictor of the sort of unpleasantness that is rampant on the interview circuit. Veterans swap apocryphal stories about being side-lined for the internal candidate, not being taken seriously as the token woman or man, being thrown questions that make little sense or being interrogated by rude or aggressive interviewers.

The worst are the personalities whose job is to put candidates on edge and make them feel grateful for being granted an audience.

The selection process for deputy and headteacher posts is even more unpredictable, largely because of the dominance of governors, who can be a distinctly mixed ability bunch.

The relatively recent fashion of dressing up the selection process by playing some form of party game or charades comes close to bringing interviewing into disrepute.

Currently in vogue is a task where each candidate has to pick a card at random, speak on the completely arbitrary topic after a few moments' thought and then chair a simulated, observed discussion. All this must be done to strict timing. Nowhere in the real world does this sort of event happen in the same way - and one is left to wonder what on earth the observers get from watching this process.

If you don't get the job you might be offered a 'debrief'. This can sometimes be helpful but is just as likely to be soul-destroying. The worst I've sat through involved a luminary taking a felt pen to a copy of my presentation, crossing out what I'd been talking about, accompanied by the immortal phrase "you know nothing about raising achievement".

It should be a salutary reminder for those schools that don't operate humane systems that their reputations are more likely to be sullied by those that don't get appointed, rather than those that do.

As a form of assessment, an interview may well be neither valid nor reliable. In other words, the questions do not actually get the answers they're meant to elicit and, on another day, might get a completely different response.

None of this should be surprising, since candidates may be put so on edge by the whole process that they are too nervous to talk much sense. While this can provide much amusement for the panel, it misses the point that if you don't find out what people are really like, you might appoint the wrong person or miss out on somebody excellent.

Not before time, many schools now include some actual teaching in the selection process. This is, after all, what the majority of candidates are being hired to do, as opposed to answering unpredictable questions while under acute stress.

Other schools put the candidates with students and get them to take part in discussions. For head of department jobs and above, we always get the candidates to do a short monitoring/observation task and write it up. We rarely include a presentation in the selection process and, if we do, we tell candidates they should not feel compelled to use PowerPoint.

Having been a headteacher now for over seven years, I have made it a key characteristic of our selection process that we try to put candidates at their ease.

Interviews are nerve-wracking enough without needing to put people under pressure to see how they react. Indeed, higher order thinking is almost impossible if you are under acute stress, so you don't get decent answers anyway.

We've even started, by way of introduction in the morning, giving the candidates a fair idea of the questions they are likely to get asked later in the day. We do actually want to find out what they think and understand, rather than catch them out.

We want to know what people are like underneath and what they really believe in. You have a much better chance of finding that out if the candidates are relaxed and can be themselves - a far cry from my experience in Sheffield in 1981.

Darren Thompson is head of a secondary school in the south-east.

Expert appointment advice

ASCL's appointment consultancy service helps school and college governors through the application and interviewing process, improving their chances of appointing the right person for the job. For information, contact the MAPS Office on 0116 299 1122 or consultancy@ascl.org.uk

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