This article is from December 2007. To receive the latest issue, subscribe here.
Joan Sallis gives advice for governing bodies on appointing a headteacher
The appointment of a new headteacher is an awesome responsibility and, I scarcely need to say, the most important decision most governing bodies ever have to make. I know how it feels as I am in the middle of it as I write, but I won’t talk about that except to say that if you are replacing a wonderful head it is the most frightening experience of your life. There may of course be cases where you don’t want a clone, however wonderful the present head is, because of changes in the intake or other external factors. (But no, I’m sorry, this time I really do want a clone!) Part of the pain is that you have always regarded your head as someone to turn to when you want guidance, but this time you are strongly discouraged from seeking it. The culture is against involving the head too directly. There may be moments when that is just what you most want to do. It is like a bereavement in which the only person who could comfort you is the one who has gone.
I am not going to set out all the principles and processes because every local authority I have worked with has a first class guide to these and I hope you will read yours several times before you embark. The guiding principle is, of course, equality of opportunity: all those who express an interest must be treated alike and the process itself must be designed to ensure that all the candidates have, as far as possible, the same experience, the same information, the same questions and exercises, equally good facilities and the same chance to shine. I remember an assignment long ago when I was very inexperienced. I was shocked because brilliant sun suddenly came round the corner and shone right in the eyes of Candidate 4. It is to my credit that I jumped up and adjusted a blind, but was even that an unfair diversion? It was the one thing we forgot.
You do of course know that you must elect a panel at a quorate meeting and between three and five members are the most frequent choices, depending on the size of school. Make sure the people concerned know what a time commitment it is and are aware of the principles, if not the detail, of the appointment processes. Do talk thoroughly among yourselves about the stage the school has reached and how you see its future, the level of experience and the range of skills you are looking for. Indeed, put these into a precise person specification before you begin; you don’t want to waste time on candidates who can’t meet the basic requirements, however delightful they may otherwise be.
The days when you asked each candidate the first questions which came into your head are no more. You must prepare your questions in detail and preferably give areas of questioning to each panel member. Make sure you are testing all the things you need to test and that questions are the same for all and really stretch the candidates. Simple questions with only one expected answer which they can all guess get you nowhere.
But the days when there was only an interview are also over. The short-listed candidates must expect to be with you for a whole day of activity, the very demanding nature of which will be a form of selection. The choice of processes will depend on the kind of school, but they will almost certainly include some contact with all parts of the school community. In my judgement the programme should normally also include a written exercise and an oral presentation for all short-listed candidates. The written project might be complex, involving a mass of material on a particular problem, and should be a measure of the individual’s ability to interpret data, expose problems, and present a programme to deal with them. The oral presentation might centre on one vital part of a school’s activity with wide repercussions, eg relationships with the community, social and moral education, the performing arts, or health issues. The worst, and not uncommon, outcome of this fateful day is that you get satisfactory answers to all your questions from all the candidates and equally relevant, competent and pleasing presentations and problem solutions from all. So you end up readvertising! Unless of course you pick the one with the nice smile. In other words, make sure there is scope in the material to identify the special person you want.
Make sure that all questions and all written and oral presentation subjects are subtle and demanding enough to separate the ablest candidates from the rest. Otherwise you waste your time. Being a headteacher is a strategic role, which means that, as well as knowing your stuff on teaching methods, staff appraisal, in-service provision and professional development, you have an eye to the outside world and what is happening there and its significance for this appointment. It could centre on important developments in some particular area of learning, or take account of economic and social trends in the country or your community.
The important thing is that you are looking for someone special. Don’t settle for less or fail to ask the questions which will identify that someone.