School governors can play a crucial role in safeguarding the future leadership of schools by taking a more systematic approach to the recruitment and appointment of headteachers.

That’s a key recommendation in a study from the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), produced in partnership with governor organisations, which recommends that all involved in the recruitment process – governing bodies, headteachers, advisers and consultants – adopt a set of simple steps that will give schools a much better chance of retaining a head once appointed.

On average, governors and employers will need to recruit a headteacher every seven years, but there are no publications with a national perspective that bring together the best techniques for appointing the right candidate for the role.

Now that help and advice is available in the NCSL guide, Recruiting headteachers and senior leaders: Step up to the challenge. It has been informed by a two-and-a-half year long research project which looked into recruitment and appointment practice in a range of schools. It is designed to help governors and others involved in the recruitment process make the best decision when seeking a new headteacher and other senior leaders for their school.

The guide also urges governors to think about recruitment processes as part of the longer term planning that ensures their schools always have the best leadership.

This includes seeking ways of speeding up the career development of staff so that they don’t have to serve a long ‘apprenticeship’ before headship; looking at alternatives to traditional headship, such as federating with other schools under one head in overall charge; ensuring that existing staff have good opportunities to develop their leadership skills and ensuring that, once in post, a head is given incentives such as development opportunities to stay long term.

The guide advocates a simple, seven-step approach to the process, from preparing for the process and defining a candidate, through to selection and appointment and evaluation.

It advises recruiters to underpin this process with some key checks, asking them not to base their expectations of a new head solely on what worked in their school in the past, or on what is seen to work in other schools, and to assess their leadership needs in the light of their school’s goals, its environment and the capabilities of the current leadership team.

Chris Kirk, NCSL’s director of succession planning, says: ‘Recruiting a headteacher is the most important decision governors have to make. But every school is different; what suits one school will not necessarily suit another and what suited a school in the past may not suit it well for the future.’

He added: ‘The study found that the process of recruiting and appointing staff can be broken down into stages and evidence shows that schools that follow each stage of the process in turn, have an open mind about the best candidate and a thorough approach – rather than diving into, say, producing an advert – tend to be more successful in recruiting a headteacher who fits their school well.

‘In particular, spending time defining the sort of leadership a school needs is crucial. This guidance can help schools appoint the right headteacher. This is particularly important today because they may have a limited number of candidates to choose from.’

The guide has been welcomed by Jean McEntire, chief executive officer of the National Governors’ Association, who said: ‘Governors need to be involved in the long-term process of building the school staff in general, and the leadership team in particular, and it’s important that they avoid seeing the recruitment and appointment of the head as a one-off event.’

This is echoed by Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who commented: ‘ASCL has worked with more than 250 schools to appoint headteachers and the task is not an easy one. While governors may understand the needs of the schools, too often they struggle to navigate the intricacies of the recruitment process.

‘The current shortage of applicants for headteacher posts may make governors’ task even more difficult. NCSL’s guidance provides timely information and support and will be welcomed by governors and schools.’

The guide is part of a two year research project into the recruitment and appointment process, the first significant work in this area for 20 years. It also includes a review of advice produced by local authorities and others on the recruitment and appointment of headteachers.

The project was undertaken on behalf of NCSL by a consortium made up of the Hay Group, Cambridge University, Eastern Leadership Centre and the National Association of Head Teachers and was supported by a range of other stakeholders, including Aspect (Association of Professionals in Education and Children’s Trusts), ASCL, Confed, the National Governors’ Association and National Co-ordinators of Governor Services.

The guide is available from NCSL (www.ncsl.org.uk/publications) or the National Governors Association at www.nga.org.uk

Who should be on our appointment panel?

You should have a least three people on the panel, and seven is usually considered the maximum advisable number. An odd number avoids the need for a casting vote. If the panel is too large, decision-making is unwieldy, especially when it may also include your external supporter and the senior local authority representative for the final interviews.
People should be chosen for the appointment panel to ensure:

  • experience of making headship appointments
  • experience of recruitment and selection in other relevant fields
  • a gender balance
  • a representative cross-section of governors
  • ability to be present at all stages of the process
  • full understanding of issues related to fairness and discrimination
  • they will make a good impression on candidates

Overarching ideals

  • Recruiting a new headteacher is among the most important decisions a governing body can make and should be approached with deliberation.
  • Governing bodies should have a long-term plan in place for headteacher succession, keeping the current head involved and identifying possible internal recruits.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the sort of headteacher you need now based upon what worked in your school in the past or what is seen to work in other schools.
  • Assess your leadership needs in the light of your goals, your environment and the capabilities of the current leadership team.
  • There are many new types and models of headship that may suit your school’s needs or widen the pool of potential applicants – seek advice on the opportunities available from your local authority or diocese. Further information is also available from NCSL’s website www.ncsl.org.uk/modelsofheadship
  • Define your leadership needs in terms of what you expect your head to know and to do and how you expect them to behave, convert these into selection criteria and rate candidates objectively against them throughout the process.
  • Set realistic expectations and a manageable number of selection criteria.

Seven steps to successful recruiting

The guide breaks down the recruitment and appointment process into seven simple steps, pointing out key things recruiters ought to consider at each stage to ensure a successful appointment:

1 Preparation – getting ready to run an effective recruitment process

  • Have a succession plan in place and stay informed about your current head’s career plans.
  • Don’t rush into advertising without proper preparation.
  • Be careful how you use the outgoing head and about the expectations you raise in your staff.
  • Obtain the DfES guidance Safeguarding children: Safer recruitment and selection in education settings and ensure that at least one member of your selection panel is trained in safer recruitment.

2 Definition – understanding and describing the ideal candidate

  • No recruitment process can be successful without a clear and relevant definition of the role and the qualities you are looking for.
  • What has worked well in the past may not work as well in the future; what works well for other schools may not work in yours.
  • Research the school’s needs and seek objective advice. Pay attention to the self-evaluation framework.

3 Attraction getting the right people to apply

  • Don’t rush to advertise – invest in preparing the process and defining needs first.
  • Seek to impress as well as to be impressed. Efficiency and courtesy are the most important attributes at this stage.
  • Be honest but optimistic – some of the best heads are attracted by the chance to make a real difference.

4 Selection – choosing the best candidate

  • Shortlist around six candidates for interview, if possible, based on your threshold criteria and whichever essential criteria can be discerned from the application form.
  • Keep a record of all decisions made and the reasons behind them.
  • Notify your diocese or LA of your shortlist and consider any representations they may make.

5 Appointment – securing your chosen candidate

  • Be realistic about what you can expect from a headteacher, but do not appoint if you have not seen the right person.
  • Inform the successful candidate first – they may say no and you may wish to offer it to the next in line (assuming that candidate also met your criteria).
  • Verbal contracts are legally binding but difficult to enforce. Ensure that contracts are drawn up and issued swiftly so that the candidate can tender their resignation.

6 Induction – giving the new appointee a strong start

  • A well-planned induction is critical for a successful recruitment process and to enable the new head to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
  • Make as much use as possible of data generated by the interview process to begin the head’s entry into formal and informal local networks.

7 Evaluation – learning from the experience

  • If you need to re-advertise the post, take some time to evaluate your previous process and decide if anything needs changing.
  • Seek objective external advice before re-advertising. Speak to candidates who decided not to apply after receiving an application pack or who dropped out during the process.
  • If recruitment is successful, evaluate what went well and what could be improved, then store that learning so that it can be used for the next senior appointment.

Nick Bannister is a media relations manager at the National College for School Leadership.

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