Schoolzone: How to appoint a new headteacher (and how not to)

Choosing heads


12 Feb 2016

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Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the problems confronting schools who are faced with the challenge of doing just this. In it, I started out by recounting my own experience of being on the receiving end - the interview process showed up a weakness. I'm pleased it did, but on reflection, it made me wonder about all the time and effort that had gone into it: I reckon there were about 20 people directly involved on day 1 and half a dozen on day 2: these were governors and senior leaders, spending hundreds of hours between them. If someone had asked me beforehand, either directly or via psychometric test (or whatever), everyone could have been saved a lot of time.

My weakness was that I wasn't the type to go in and sack people, which was fair enough: I'm not. So, when my current school started the interview process for a new head, our starting point was an online trait analysis test which was intended to pick up such potential problems before the formal interviews even started. I'd heard about a new service (offered by a very experienced organisation) that I liked the sound of as itís actually tailored to the National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers.

A primary school had used a three part process Ė a first round interview and exercises, followed by an assessment with Mercuri Urval (the organisation in question), which used psychometric and cognitive tools to inform a one-to-one, one hour interview with each of the shortlisted candidates, conducted by a MU consultant. There then followed a final panel interview and presentation. The process took three days, but the governors were only required for two of them, but the main advantage was that the leadership skills identified were those related to the new standards. I also liked the idea that candidates had a written report to use for future development needs.

Such tests were popular about 10 years ago, when schools tried to up their game in the appointment process, trying to learn from business. But they fell out of fashion largely, I think, because the leadership skills they compared against were too generic for school leadership and because schools tended to go for the cheapest option which seem to provide only the written report, but no consultant to help understand what they are saying. What you need is someone who can come into school, talk to the candidates and help governors frame specific interview questions for each interviewee. What I wonder now is whether this approach could be useful for performance management too: it would be great to have an external expert conducting some form of standardised assessment to identify traits. Even if you chose to ignore them, or were unable to do much about some of them, it would lend a degree of veracity to the process, which currently places too much reliance on personal opinions of colleagues, who may know little about leadership qualities and how to identify them. I spoke with MUís Chris Wilton (who also told me more of the process above) about the prospects for this use, and it sounds like a great idea - they already offer it as a service, it turns out. Iíll be taking it up with our new head in September.

As I lamented in my piece earlier this week, the process of recruiting a new head is usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most governors, so they have no experience. They don't know what to look for nor how to recognise it. The standards are a superb basis, but there are dozens of them and as governors tend not to have also headteachers they don't all even mean much to most of us. So any help we can get is extremely useful and is worth spending the money on. Think of the cost of making the wrong appointment. We were lucky in that a local engineering company financed our testing - if you're going through this process, try contacting someone with a forward thinking HR (or PR!) team: the recruitment of a new head is very positive thing for local companies to get behind.

If you ever find yourself in the position of having responsibility for appointing a new head, I recommend getting as much professional help as you can possibly afford. This is a lesson Iíve just learned and would like to think that I can spare other schools some of the same heartache by sharing these experiences.



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