The Government has just published an Independent Study into School Leadership, which includes recommendations on training and recruitment of leaders. This article examines the current shortage of leadership candidates, and contrasts this with the surplus of NQTs

The teacher shortages that we experienced a few years ago are mostly a thing of the past. The pendulum has swung the other way now and, except in a few subject areas, we have a surplus of NQTs. The reason for the present surplus is a combination of inaccuracies in DfES forecasts and the undoubted success of the Training and Development Agency for schools (TDA – formerly the Teacher Training Agency) in recruiting both new graduates and older entrants into teaching.

The real shortage area now is in school leaders – as those of you who are trying to appoint a headteacher will know. One reason for this shortage harks back to a previous shortfall in teacher recruitment some 20 years ago. It has been a time bomb in the making – and one that is now, rather belatedly, being addressed by government.

Looking to the future
Two years ago the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) initiated research into headteacher shortage and the recruitment and selection of heads. Last year the college was given an enlarged remit, which includes providing advice for ministers on how succession planning can be addressed and advising on the feasibility of a small scale pilot to bring new leaders into schools.

The college has also been given responsibility for providing advice to governors on the appointment of school leaders. The findings from the research are informing a guidance pack for governors on recruitment and selection. This work is being undertaken by a consortium led by Hay Group and including the Eastern Leadership Centre, NAHT and Cambridge University. The quality of their work is impressive.

They have conducted interviews, a literature review, case studies and surveys. The draft guidance and interim report have been completed. Benchmarking and validation are now in progress with the final guidance and report to be launched in September.

The benchmarking process includes international comparisons within and outside the educational context. Validation work on the materials has involved working with a diverse group of schools that are currently in the process of appointing a head.

The validation stage of the research has uncovered a set of issues which will need to be addressed. The most common ones are set out in the panel opposite.

The full report and practical guide for governors will be published in September. A summary of the Leading Appointments interim report can be downloaded from:

For the present
We’re all human. As human beings we share a variety of human attributes but unfortunately we also share several defects. Because of the way our brains work, we have a tendency to jump to conclusions without understanding why. If we are not aware of the influences on our decision making, and do not ensure against their having undue effect, we will make poor appointments. Not only that, we will be open to accusations of unfair bias – and rightly so.

Some common mistakes and problems
For those who will be involved in appointing staff before having access to the final report from NCSL, here are some potential pitfalls to avoid:

First impressions.
We all know that first impressions are important. Your candidates will be nervous and may not create the initial impression that they would like.

This is doubly unfortunate if they are dealing with inexperienced selectors. These are inclined to rely on their first impression of a candidate and spend the rest of their time seeking evidence to substantiate their first impression and dismissing any contrary evidence. They have made up their minds in the first 30 seconds and nothing the candidate does or says subsequently will make them change it. It is important to keep an open mind so as to give each candidate sufficient opportunity to persuade you that they are right for the job.

The halo/horns effect. This comes into play in two ways. Firstly, a candidate may share an attribute with someone we like – or dislike.

Any candidate who looks like our hated Uncle Vernon will find it very difficult to get a fair hearing. This is especially dangerous because we often do not realise that our brain has made that connection! Conversely, someone who reminds us of a good friend, either in looks or mannerisms, is likely to be well received.

The other form of this effect occurs when a candidate performs particularly well or badly in one aspect of the selection process. Unwary selectors will allow this good or poor aspect of performance to influence their judgement on another aspect. If a candidate has shown a high degree of ability in a financial management task, this does not mean that she will necessarily be good at dealing with unmotivated staff. Put in these stark terms the difference is clear – but nonetheless, many selectors fall into the halo/horns trap.

The primacy/recency effect.
This effect is caused by the way in which our memory is organised. We remember best the first candidate we have seen and the last one. The ones in the middle will, if we are not careful, merge into an amorphous mass. This is not a good basis for decision making!

The contrast effect. Here, we compare candidates with each other instead of comparing each with the competencies we have decided are pertinent. This can lead us to appoint the best of a poor field of candidates – a mistake if even the best is not up to the job.

Our task is to find the person who best fits the job – so we should be comparing each person with the job description and person specification that we have prepared.

Personal appearance.
Unless it is necessary for satisfactory performance, personal appearance should not sway our decision. In any front line job, a degree of personal care is required and this is true of most jobs in schools. However, you should not allow personal foibles about dress or appearance to sway your judgment. Just because you don’t like men with beards doesn’t mean that a bearded man can’t do the job!

Stereotyping. Our brains work by grouping together things or people that have similarities. This is not always helpful. Racial and gender stereotyping are the most common but stereotyping related to disability and sexual orientation can also lead to unlawful discrimination.

Stereotyping that leads to unfair discrimination is not only unlawful it is also misleading. It is one of the many ways in which we make assumptions which go way beyond the evidence. We need to be aware that we are all prey to it.

Unfair discrimination. We all know the obvious questions to avoid. ‘How do you organise your child care?’ is a question which exhibits direct discrimination against women. Indirect discrimination is also unlawful and its avoidance takes more thought. ‘You’ve taken a long route to headship. Why is this?’ indirectly discriminates against women. Women, because of

their different career structure, on average take longer to reach headship than comparable men. Hence, unfair discrimination.

Like me/not like me. We are pre-programmed to like people whom we see as similar to us in some significant way. Conversely, we have difficulty engaging with people with whom we have little in common.

In social situations this is no problem; we gravitate towards people we feel comfortable with. In a selection situation, we cannot allow ourselves this luxury. If we favour the candidate who exhibits traits similar to ours, this may cause us to appoint someone who, just like us, is inappropriate for the job! It also contributes to the ‘clone effect’ where a lack of variety in the makeup of staffing leads to the stunting of organisational growth.

Enthusiasm=competence. Enthusiasm is a very attractive trait and it may well be one of the things you are looking for. However, it is easy to confuse enthusiasm with competence – especially if your only selection tool is an interview.

If your selection process is inadequate, an enthusiastic incompetent can easily talk their way into a job. Such a person is a liability and will cause you grief. You can differentiate between enthusiasm and competence by skilful use of questioning or by using selection tools which require actual performance of aspects of the job.

Failure to assess against selection criteria.
This can happen for two reasons. Sometimes the job description and person specification are not adequate and you find yourself looking for important and relevant competencies that you have not specified. This happens even to experienced selection practitioners but it is not good practice and is avoidable.

More commonly, inexperienced selectors will find themselves assessing traits that are not specified and are totally irrelevant. These might be those described above or a particular bee in a selector’s bonnet. The worst case I’ve encountered was an errant selector looking for ‘an interest in cricket’ from candidates for a maths teaching job. The selector in question was passionate about cricket and wanted a soulmate in the staffroom!

Now I know you wouldn’t fall foul of any of these – but you might know someone who would! Your well planned and varied selection process with an explicit scoring system, governors who have been trained and have previous experience in selection together with high quality advisers will minimise the danger of poor process and consequent poor decisions. Yes, it is worth your while taking the time to get it right.

The most common issues

  • Connecting the stages from pre-recruitment to post-appointment
    Governors tend to see each stage as a separate entity virtually unconnected to the previous or next stage in the process.
  • Rigour of approach
    There was found to be a lack of rigour in recruitment and selection activities, which can lead to wrong decisions.
  • Differing capabilities of governors
    Many governors are competent selection practitioners either through their work experience or because they have been involved in school appointments. Some are less than competent and, for some governors, the first time they have been involved in any way in appointing staff is in the appointment of their headteacher.
  • Contrasting approaches
    There is a variety of approaches to the recruitment and selection process, some of which are less than satisfactory.
  • Varied quality of advice/support
    It was found that the quality of support from advisers, both Local Authority and independent, was variable.
  • Trust issues between school and LA
    If these are present, they can have serious implications for the smooth running of the appointment process.
  • Timing and pace
    This often relates to lack of planning prior to the resignation of the current head. The short timescale between resignation and appointment sometimes leads to a frantic rush so options are not properly explored and corners cut.

The Independent Study into School Leadership can be downloaded or ordered online at

Jane Phillips

is an occupational psychologist and a governor member of the Leading Appointments Advisory Group. Her book Recruitment and Selection – a practical guide for school governors and headteachers is available from Adamson Publishing, 01353 649238,