Did the referee mean to praise the candidate or warn you off? Is a string of previous jobs a negative factor? Headteacher Carole Farrar looks at how to weigh up the information when appointing early years staff.

You have written the job description and agreed the person specification, placed the advertisement and set a date for interviews. Visits have been organised, applications are flooding in and references are being taken up. Your recruitment procedures are working like a well-oiled machine and all the ingredients are in place for you to make the perfect appointment…but how can managers of early years settings be sure they are getting the right person for the job?

If the prospective candidate comes to visit your setting and tells you that it really would be much better if you put the sand tray where the home corner is, would this indicate a helpful or interfering nature?

Will the person who writes: ‘I have a very placid nature’ be just the person you need to stay calm in a crisis? Or could it translate as ‘the children will be able to run rings round me’?

Does the applicant who encloses references from previous employers simply mean to be helpful, or is there a more sinister reason?

If a candidate tells you that they want the job because they do not get on with their current employer, does that person have problems with authority or has s/he been the victim of workplace bullying?

Did the referee who wrote: ‘when dealing with children she is extremely firm’ mean to warn you off, or that the person’s behaviour management skills are second to none?

The ability to ‘read between the lines’ is an important skill – it can make the difference between an appointment that will see your setting flourish, or one that will be a continual source of stress or even damage.

The informal visit

If you have invited prospective candidates to make an informal visit to your setting, what might you learn?


Firstly, is the visitor prepared to fit in with your schedule or do they want a ‘special arrangement’? If it is the latter, then this could indicate a lack of flexibility, though of course the reason may be genuine and unavoidable.

Appropriate Behaviour

When looking round, does the visitor engage with the children or is s/he more interested in speaking to adults who might have influence? Is the candidate treating the visit as a chance to blow his/her own trumpet and get one over on the opposition? When this happens, staff can be prevented from getting on with their work and it could indicate a general lack of understanding and awareness of appropriate behaviour on the part of the candidate.


After a visit, it can be useful to gather opinions from colleagues, as candidates can sometimes make unguarded comments. Questions such as: ‘So what’s the boss like then because my last one was a total slave-driver’ are unlikely to go down well and could signal a lack of loyalty.

The application

A candidate’s application can often reveal much more than was intended!

If you stated that you did not want CVs, yet an applicant has sent one anyway, or if you said supporting statements should be no longer than a single sheet of A4 yet you receive six pages, does this show an inability to follow simple instructions?

Does the candidate who meets the single side of A4 rule by making the letter font size so small that you need a magnifying glass to read it demonstrate an inability to show awareness of the needs of others?

Has the person whose supporting statement tells you all about working as a technical director with an electrical engineering company (and indeed how many components and calculations it takes to make a transformer) shown that they have understood the needs of your organisation? Then again, such a candidate could come in handy if the photocopier breaks down….

It almost goes without saying that candidates who submit applications that are littered with spelling and grammatical errors, or who have handwriting that is almost illegible, show a complete disregard of attention to detail and as such are unlikely to add value to your organisation.

The importance of checking employment history dates cannot be overstated. Do they add up? If not, is this simple carelessness or could the candidate be trying to hide something such as dismissal from a previous post because of misconduct? A CRB check can be relied upon to reveal a criminal past, but vigilance at all stages of the recruitment process is still vital.

If an applicant lists a series of jobs which have all been short-term or in widely differing fields, should you be questioning whether or not this person has the necessary level of commitment you are looking for, or is it simply that after a life-long search, the candidate has finally discovered their vocation?

Are breaks in service adequately explained or is this something you will need to pick up on at interview? Can the candidate realistically be expected to meet the start date or make the daily journey to work if s/he gives an address that is 200 miles from your setting? It could be that such a person might simply be fancying an all-expenses paid trip to your locality!

Finally, check to see that all sections of the application form have been filled in. Have all declarations been completed? Have all details of educational qualifications been entered? Do they make sense? If not, could this be an oversight or an attempt at deception? Are referees as suitable as they should be? If the candidate’s last employer has not been named, is there something to hide?

A careful scrutiny of applications can often save a wasted interview. Ultimately, it may even prevent a potentially disastrous appointment.

The interview

Whilst it is important not to judge simply by appearance, first impressions do count.

If a candidate arrives looking dishevelled, unkempt and reeking of cigarette smoke, this is unlikely to impress your clientele however good his or her qualifications! Similarly, a late arrival might be legitimately excused if there has been some kind of emergency but otherwise, it indicates poor personal organisation.

Whilst it should not be given undue emphasis, body language can be very revealing. Does the candidate indicate confidence by smiling, making eye contact and offering a firm (but not bone-crushingly over-enthusiastic) handshake? If so, then this is a good start as it suggests that the candidate is pleased to be there. If the opposite behaviour is encountered – a dour expression, downcast eyes and a limp handshake – it is likely that this candidate will have difficultly relating to others.

As the interview proceeds and questions are asked, check out body language again. An open posture and good eye-contact throughout can indicate openness and sincerity – or very good acting! However, body language such as ‘shifty’ eye contact or nose touching might indicate that a candidate is not entirely comfortable with your line of questioning. However, it is important to take a balanced view of the body language that you see, as nerves can affect people in some very strange ways.

Listening carefully is an important skill. We can infer meaning from what is said or not at interview in very much the same way as we can interpret written information. For example, is the candidate simply responding with theoretical answers or are they backing up what they tell you with examples from their own experience? This will tell you if they can really ‘walk the talk’. Are answers full and clear, or are some rather thin and confused? This can happen if a candidate is trying to cover up a lack of ability or experience.

Is the interviewee able to stick to the point and answer the question that has been asked? If so, this indicates that they are likely to be well-focused. A person who rambles at length is unlikely to be adept at picking up cues from others and may well lack concentration and empathy.

Does the candidate come across as a good team player, able to cope with the responsibilities of the post? Boastful assertions and claims about how great someone is that are not backed up by evidence can smack of self-importance, which is not generally a desirable quality. Similarly, it is important to pick up on any negativity. If you ask the candidate if s/he had any trouble finding your setting and the response is a prolonged account of what a terrible time s/he had finding you, then this may not be the kind of positive person you want to be working closely with!

The references

Never appoint a candidate without taking up references. History has shown that this is a matter of vital importance when it comes to safeguarding children. Even if a candidate has supplied what appear to be perfectly good references with an application, these should still be checked out. If doubt remains, check things out by telephone or ask for additional referees.

References offer a further opportunity to check out your perceptions. A good reference will validate information supplied to you by a candidate and should be unambiguous in terms of any recommendation. A strong: ‘I would not hesitate to employ this person again’, ‘In every aspect, a committed and gifted worker’ or ‘I recommend him/her to you without reservation’ can usually be taken as a very positive sign. One note of caution though – be careful that all the evidence stacks up and the current employer is not looking to ‘offload’ a difficult member of staff! For example, if the reference also contains comments such as: ‘S/he has developed his/her inter-personal skills appreciably’ then it could be that there have been relationship problems.

Comments about an applicant’s personality should also be carefully thought about. Is the person described as ‘a lively member of staff with a strong sense of humour’ a cheery soul to have around or someone who rarely takes things seriously? Check out your thinking at interview.

Remarks relating to candidates’ skills and abilities require careful attention. Do they support the job specification? If, for example, you are looking for someone who can use his/her initiative, would a comment such as: ‘s/he has benefited from working with supportive colleagues’ bode well? If someone is described as being: ‘likely to benefit from further training’ will they have the capabilities you require?

Information in references about health and attendance records should always be given close attention. A history of lateness or multiple short-term intermittent absence is likely to have become a pattern and could be repeated in your organisation. This can be costly both in financial terms and also for continuity and relationships. A statement such as: ‘when he/she was here, I could not fault his/her work’ is a pretty clear warning against choosing this particular candidate!

And finally……

The ability to read between the lines is a useful skill, but it is important to keep a sense of balance. It would be extremely unfortunate if the ideal candidate were to be turned away because of a simple misunderstanding or undue cynicism. A sense of perspective and careful crossreferencing should prevent this from happening and you should be able to be confident that, taking all evidence into consideration, you have made the right appointment for your setting.