How to appoint a new headteacher (and how not to)
08 Feb 2016
At the end of the last century (and it feels that long ago) I was looking for a headship myself. I was deputy and decided that the only way was up. At my first headship interview, there were six interviewees and we did all the usual panels stuff and on day 2 I failed the interview and was told (correctly) that I wasn’t the right sort to go in and get rid of the weakest staff. On reflection, I realised that I didn’t want to be a head after all and that actually the only way was, in fact, down. I decided to go back to classroom teaching and forget all the leadership stuff. It didn’t happen, but the whole process made me realise that appointments at this level are all wrong in schools and for several reasons, which haven't really improved since then.
Before I go on to them though, I’d like to mention the Heads up report from the Future Leaders Trust, which looks at the problems of recruiting headteachers from the point of view of there being too few potential applicants. It cites such issues as the fact that there are too many pressures on schools just now – a legacy of the Gove era (no control over school expansion, free schools, greater accountability, performance management etc), that too many teachers are young, while too many heads are old - and so on. Its authors, The Future Leaders Trust, have a particular mission to address the issue though, so the report is very much focused on the things that they are trying to tackle.
These last few weeks, I’ve been leading a team of governors to appoint a new head to our 11-18, very successful comprehensive - and it’s not something I would relish doing again. Here then are some of the reasons that it occurs to me that cause the problems:
The calendar: our head announces retirement on the first day of the spring term - fair enough, but this is the start of maximum demand time, because everyone else has to resign at about the same time, ready for a September start. The vast majority of head vacancies are round about now, which means that we have to advertise as soon as possible and get the interviews in before anyone else bags the best local candidates. We absolutely bust a gut to do this, but still lost a good candidate on the Friday before the interviews were scheduled.
The stakeholders: so many people want and need to share the process: staff and governors at least, which means that there are a lot of views to gather, which compounds the calendar issue.
The assessment centre: (as I’ve learned to call it) applies a lot of pressure to everyone involved. Typically, we try to put a lot of activities into two or three days – to satisfy the demands of the two previous issues, which is a huge barrier to applicants who may not want to put themselves through it.
The public nature of failure: an internal candidate will have a reference written by the out-going head, which then goes on his/her file. If they fail, then apply for another headship next year, that failing reference is the one the new head will use as a basis. Plus, everyone knows that you’re going for the post, which, if you fail, leaves egg on your face and undermines the authority you need to keep on doing your current job. In other professions, decisions about promotion or job applications are pretty much done in secret.
Public accountability: imagine taking on a very successful school, whose performance measures are all over the place for anyone to see. In an environment where all the accountability measures and the tools to measure them are changing. Where Ofsted seems to get more and more ferocious about any perceived dips. Where the actual measure to be used doesn’t even seem to be settled (EBacc, 5 A*-C, P8?) and where school budgets are continuing to decline. Get any of these wrong and the whole world knows about it. Fancy a go?
The blind lead the blind: who helps the governors to appoint? I feel privileged to have a background in schools at almost the right kind of level and have appointed a fair few staff both in schools and in business, so feel more confident than most. Plus, I have a truly amazing group of fellow governors and clerk able to contribute. But for other chairs of governors finding themselves in this position in single academies, thereís no help forthcoming. We had to work out whom to involve when and at what level, in a very short space of time and with no support to reassure us that we were asking the right people. Fortunately, we had some really supportive heads and ex-heads who knew the school well enough to help and we listened to them. But thereís no equivalent of the LA to turn to nowadays and the process is in the hands of amateurs (sorry fellow govs, but thatís what we are) in this context, who give up their own time to make a once-in-a-lifetime decision, using what little spare time they may have.
I think The Future Leaders Trust have some good, valid points to make about rebranding headships and supporting potential leaders to feel confident about applying – anything they can do will be a help – but there are systemic and environmental issues that act as barriers, about which we can do nothing in a hurry.
I’m sorry that the title of this piece may seem, in the face of all this, misleadingly optimistic but, as I keep telling myself, no matter how small the field may be, we only need to find one new head.