Effective school staff recruitment is an imperative part of school management. Ruth Bradbury provides advice to ensure the effective operation of your school’s recruitment practices

The recruitment and selection of staff is one of the most important processes in the management of an organisation. In schools, staffing costs typically represent between 70% and 80% of the budget, and however good your vision and strategic plans may be, they will not be achieved successfully unless you have the right people in post to share and implement them.

Over the past few years, a substantial increase in support staff numbers and roles has meant that business managers may have an involvement in the recruitment and selection of 50% or more of the total staffing numbers, and these staff have an impact across the whole range of the school’s activities. In this article, I shall address the various stages of the recruitment and selection process and offer suggestions to help you ensure that the processes you use will result in the appointment of high-quality people who can make a real difference to your school.

Reviewing the vacancy

The first stage in recruitment and selection should be a consideration of the nature of the role required. Whether you are replacing an existing staff member, or whether the post is being created in response to an identified additional need, this process should still be undertaken. Some aspects to consider include:

  • Identifying the core elements of the role – if you are recruiting to an existing post, this should include a review of whether all aspects are still required. If the post is one that has existed for many years, then its components may owe more to tradition and historical precedent than to any clear rationale – in which case, the vacancy may well be an opportunity to rethink and reorganise. This may of course then require the renegotiation of other job descriptions, but you should not shrink away from this if it results in a more coherent allocation of duties.
  • Considering whether the role can meet other needs – either things identified in the past but not considered substantial and/or pressing enough to warrant additional recruitment at the time, or additional requirements that may come into play with new projects or the natural growth of workloads.

The best way of gathering information about the requirements of the post is by speaking to staff, especially those who will work closely with the post-holder, and then combining this with your own overview and long-term support staffing strategy.

Grading the role

The recent (or ongoing, depending on your local authority) pay and grading review of support staff has made the grading of posts a far more complex exercise than it would have been a few years ago. If you are recruiting to a role that has recently been evaluated by the local authority, and to which you have made no material changes, then you need simply to advertise at the agreed level. If, however, you have made significant alterations, then community schools will need to ensure that they follow the correct procedures with their LA for determining the grade. Foundation and voluntary-aided schools and academies will have more flexibility here, but it is still important to ensure that there is parity with similar roles to avoid any potential equal pay claims. This said, if you feel you may have difficulty in recruiting a suitable calibre of candidate at the LA-evaluated grade, there is the option to take a pragmatic (or cynical) approach. This can be done by carefully considering job evaluation criteria to ‘boost’ vital aspects of the role – eg management responsibility, required qualifications, etc. Another option is to look into the addition of a ‘market supplement’ to the salary to aid recruitment. Guidance on the criteria for this is available on the Unison website.

Producing documentation

Once you have decided on the substance of the role, you will need to draft documentation to forward to potential applicants. This should include:

Job description
In many ways the most important of all the documentation, it is vital to get this right. The review process outlined above should ensure that the duties ascribed to the role are the right ones, and these should be presented clearly in written form. The style and layout of job descriptions will of course vary from school to school, but I would recommend that as a basic standard all job descriptions should include the following:

  • job title and grade
  • salary range (full-time equivalent)
  • hours of work and number of weeks (eg term-time + two weeks)
  • pro-rata salary if the role is not full time – in my experience, including this can avoid a great deal of confusion
  • purpose of the role – in one or two sentences (eg ‘to support the school’s attendance strategy by analysing and acting upon attendance data’)
  • general requirements – eg adherence to/promotion of school ethos; working towards objectives of School improvement plan etc.
  • specific duties, as identified in the review – ideally no more than 10 bullet points
  • additional duties – occasional tasks and/or a requirement for general or specific administrative cover in the case of staff absence
  • a ‘catch-all’ line to the effect that the staff member can be required to do ‘any other appropriate tasks as directed by school leadership’
  • a requirement to undertake training and development appropriate to the post.

It is worth mentioning that the pay and grading review has led to many LAs producing standard job descriptions for school roles. While these may appear initially to be an efficient solution, I have yet to be convinced that a generic document can appropriately capture the requirements of roles which are often very specific to individual schools. I would therefore advocate the drafting of bespoke documentation wherever possible.

Person specification
The person specification is also an important document, setting out your stall in terms of knowledge and experience required. As with the job description, specifically-designed documents are preferable to an off-the-shelf version. Some tips for content include:

  • Divide the specification into three sections: i) knowledge and skills; ii) qualifications and experience; iii) personal qualities.
  • In each section, detail the qualities essential for the role and those that would be desirable. Make sure these are linked to the requirements of the job description – for example, if one of the key elements of the role is to manipulate spreadsheet data, then you will need high-level analytical and ICT skills.
  • Indicate how each of the qualities will be assessed – eg application form, letter, interview or other selection task.
  • Take care with ‘essential’ requirements. If there is the opportunity for introductory training or support for the post-holder, then be flexible. There is little to be gained from scoping people out at the application stage. Furthermore, if you believe that there may be strong internal candidates, ensure that the essential qualifications requirements do not preclude them from applying.
  • Think carefully about whether you require applicants to have previous experience of working in a school. While it is true that schools have a lot of unique aspects, most organisations have more in common with one another than they have differences, and there are some very strong candidates from other backgrounds. Making school experience an essential requirement may mean that the initial learning curve is less of a challenge for the successful candidate, but you may prevent a lot of strong applicants from applying.
  • While I do not think specific school experience is essential, I would argue very strongly that experience of working with or at least being around young people is important, especially in roles where the appointed staff member will be dealing directly with students. For roles such as cover supervisors, learning support assistants, pastoral managers, etc. I would recommend that it is an essential specification.

Other information

The information pack sent out to potential applicants will give an impression of the school and inform their decision on whether or not to apply. It is therefore important to make the pack as informative and welcoming as possible. In addition to the job description, person specification and application form, you could also include:

  • A letter from the headteacher or business manager, which should include details of the selection process and timetable. If the job is part-time then it is also worth adding a paragraph to explain the difference between the full-time and pro-rata salary.
  • A one-page information sheet on the school, detailing number of students, headline exam results, key objectives, ethos etc.
  • The school prospectus and web address.

Shortlisting

If you have taken care with the person specification, then the shortlisting process should be a relatively straightforward one. The main objective is to measure each applicant’s fit with the person specification – ie how far they have demonstrated that they possesses the required skills, knowledge, qualifications, experience and qualities. The best way of assessing this is to set out a grid with each of the person-specification criteria in the left-hand column and the name of each candidate in the top row. The task is then to review each candidate against each criterion, either by a simple ‘yes/no’ or by awarding marks out of 10. Matches to ‘essential’ criteria will of course need to be considered before any ‘desirable’ criteria are taken into account.

Once you have reviewed the suitability of candidates in relation to the person specification, you are then in a position to take other things into account, including the quality of the application in general (again, awarding marks out of 10 can be a useful method) and any additionality that they may be able to offer – eg useful skills and experience or a commitment to supporting extra-curricular activities. I will personally always look favourably on any applicant who has clearly expressed a personal commitment to education or to supporting young people.

It is good practice for more than one person to be involved in the shortlisting process, and the members of the interview panel are the most obvious choice. The most effective method is for each member of the panel to privately arrive at their own shortlist through the process outlined above, and to then meet to determine a final group of candidates. Any applicants who are on all of the shortlists should automatically be invited to interview. It is then up to the panel members to discuss the remaining candidates, to put their cases for and against them, and to come up with a final list.
The optimum number of applicants to shortlist is probably between four and six. However, if there are seven or eight strong candidates, I would advocate seeing them all. Conversely, if there are only one or two who meet the criteria then I would not suggest that you see any more just to make up the numbers. If you do not feel that the field is broad enough then there is always the option to re-advertise. However, it is worth bearing in mind that an interview is not normally as expensive as an advertisement, and that you only need one good candidate to make an appointment.

The selection process

Once you have identified your shortlisted candidates, there is a range of ways in which you can assess their suitability for the role. These include:

Formal interview
By far the most accepted and traditional method of selection, interviews test a range of aspects including communication skills, personality and subject knowledge. Two key aspects of a successful interview are 1) the use of an appropriate panel of interviewers and 2) the inclusion of suitable questions. Panel interviews are the norm in schools and are a good way of ensuring a rounded and objective view of candidates. The panel should include a senior member of staff with considerable interviewing experience (the business manager, for example) and the direct line manager for the post. If the role is one where the successful candidate will be directed by, or working with, a number of staff, then it is certainly worth including one or more of them on the panel, not least so that they can feel they have been involved in the selection process. Finally, if the post is one where expert knowledge is required and this is not readily available in school (recruitment of a network manager, for example) then it is advisable to include an external panel member with the appropriate expertise – possibly a governor with relevant experience or a representative from the local authority.

It is important to ensure that questions are drafted well in advance, and that they test all the relevant aspects of the person specification. For example, if the specification states that candidates must be effective team members, then they should be asked to give an example of a time that they have contributed successfully as a member of a team. If the role requires specific professional knowledge, then questions should be asked to test this: for example, a science technician could be asked how to set up a particular experiment. Questions should, of course, be identical for each candidate so as to allow objective comparison, although it is fine to ask individual follow-up questions if there is an area that the panel wish to probe further with a particular candidate. To aid recall and the comparison of candidates it is advisable to take notes of answers, and to grade responses (eg A, B, C). To this end, I would recommend that each panel member has a full copy of the questions for each candidate, to annotate during the interview.

Practical task
While an interview is an effective way of testing knowledge and communication skills, it is not necessarily the best means of assessing an individual’s ability to do the job. In many roles, therefore, it is advisable to include a test or practical session which allows candidates to demonstrate their abilities. You can be quite creative in devising these, but examples I have used have included requesting an Excel spreadsheet and a written report from data manager candidates, and presenting IT technicians with a malfunctioning printer and asking them to fix it.

For any role that involves contact with young people I would recommend that you have the opportunity to observe candidates working with students in some way. For example, cover supervisors could be asked to get a class settled and give out work, or learning support assistants could be invited to take part in group work with students.

Student interviews
Even if the role does not involve routine student contact, the successful candidate will be working in a school and should be able to demonstrate that they can communicate with young people and – most importantly – that they like and respect them. Student panel interviews are a great way of seeing first-hand how candidates interact with children, and they are also an example of student voice in action. Last, but certainly not least, young people are extremely perceptive and will normally make very sharp assessments of candidates. If you do use students as part of the interview process, they need to be given time with a member of staff to decide on questions beforehand, and that member of staff should be present with the group during the interviews themselves.

Finally, it is worth noting that if a candidate is from outside the education sector, there are a number of things that may surprise them about the process. The practice of having all candidates in at the same time is not often employed in the commercial world, nor is the practice of informing candidates on the day of the interview whether or not they have been successful. Also, many interviews in other sectors are conducted on a one-to-one basis and can be less formal. For some prospective staff, especially those being recruited for lower-level jobs, it may be quite daunting to be faced with three or more stern-looking interviewers, all of whom are reading carefully from question sheets. In view of this, it is always important when inviting canditates for interview, to inform them of what the process will involve, and to brief them again at the start of the day.

Ruth Bradbury is assistant principal (finance and business management) at Darwen Aldridge Community Academy

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