How to shortlist for a headteacher interview

How do you decide which of your potential new school leaders should make it through to interview? We asked an expert recruiter for some advice

Simon Lock

Two Governors Shortlisting A Potential Headteacher

Whittling down your prospective new headteachers to a manageable list is an important process. There are lots of things to consider and, for such an important role, it would be a disaster if a great candidate missed the cut for the wrong reasons.

Tes recruitment director Dr Michael Watson heads up the Tes smartSearch team and has 18 years’ experience in helping schools to appoint senior leaders. He offers some advice for governors on how to fine-tune their shortlisting process.

Who should be involved in shortlisting candidates?

From the full governing body, you need to decide which five governors form the selection panel to appoint the new headteacher.

If governors feel they don’t have enough experience, they may decide to bring in some additional expertise. Sometimes that could be a very experienced headteacher, a former head, a director of education or a recruitment consultant. If there are any external advisers, they are there only in an advisory capacity – they don’t have a vote on which candidates are shortlisted.

A question I often get asked is whether staff governors should be involved in the formal interview process to select the headteacher, given the perceived conflict of interest. In my view, it is best practice to have staff (including staff governors) involved in the two-day interview process as stakeholders in an activity, but not formally interviewing the candidates.

How many candidates should you have on your shortlist?

Ideally five, although, it is also fine to keep an additional two on a reserve list if you have a strong field. After your first day of interviewing, you should be in a position to reduce this number once the candidates have gone through a carousel of technical and interactive activities. 

Typically, no more than three candidates make it through to the second day.

What level of experience should you be looking for?

There’s no absolute minimum here. It is good to have candidates with varying degrees of experience. A deputy headteacher of five years could be as good as a headteacher of two years. There will be many variations to this, but it is important to consider a range of factors when deciding who next leads your school.

Should you look at candidates who haven’t held a headship before?

I’m a big advocate of potential over experience. You could have someone who has a tremendous amount of experience but, actually, for your particular school, it’s the wrong type of experience.

With someone who has less experience, there’s more opportunity for you to mould them and shape them. They are able to learn on the job or get some mentoring along the way. They’ll need to have some core skills and be able to demonstrate some whole-school improvement.

If you have a very experienced senior team, this allows you to look at it in a much more holistic way, in that they don’t need someone with so much experience, as the team has certain things covered.

The elements that might be lacking are perhaps experience of being on the big stage or leading a school through an Ofsted inspection, but a really good deputy headteacher can get up to speed on those core areas very quickly.

Should you consider someone from another sector or phase?

Experience tells me that it’s a nice thing to try but, eight times out of 10, it’s not successful. Where a different sector or phase are being considered, then the governors need to ensure they have the right support in place to fill any gaps and a strong rationale for doing it.

Is there anything you should be wary of when reviewing applications?

Candidates, like everybody, will be subjective about their experience, so they will almost always present the best version of their time at their school.

Look for claims that can’t be substantiated. If a candidate is making a claim about something, it’s good to fact-check the information. A simple Ofsted, Department for Education, school website and Google search should suffice.

Also, try to cut through the buzzwords. For governors, who aren’t always experts, it’s sometimes very hard to see past jargon.

When should you check references?

Government guidance is to check references at the point that the candidate applies for the role. However, most schools collect references at the point of shortlisting, which is more sensible.

We find that a lot of candidates applying for headships ask that schools only check references if they are shortlisted and not before.

How important are exam results and Ofsted reports from the candidate’s previous school?

They are very important. I tend to view the Ofsted report as one of three pieces of information that helps us to understand the claims made by a candidate; particularly if the candidate is the head of their school.

For primary schools, it is the Ofsted, SATs and Progress scores. For secondary schools, it is the Ofsted, Progress 8 and GCSE results. Governors may choose to add others. Used together they can help the selection panel understand the context and claims of the applicant.  

I’d never rely on one of these on its own, because we know the issues around Ofsted, and with outstanding schools that have started to coast.  

How important is it that the candidate’s ethos matches that of the school?  

It is important, because you don’t want someone to come in to be a dictator, or be too hands-off. But at the same time, I can think of examples where the governors want someone to come in with some new ideas and shake things up.

First of all, governors should reflect on their own ideas of where they are and where they want the school to go. I have witnessed governing bodies that are split over the requirement needed from a new candidate in order to move their school forward. If this is not clear from the outset, things can quickly unravel.

In terms of integrating with existing staff or the senior leadership team, it depends on what the school requires. Either way it’s best to proceed with caution.

We’ve seen situations in which a candidate has been appointed to a headship where there are a significant number of long-serving members of staff with access to and influence over the governors. Sometimes, the vision of the new head unravels when the existing staff are unable to shake off the idea that “this is the best we can do with the children that we’ve got”. 

What are the pros and cons of appointing internal staff?

The good thing about appointing from within is that they know the school very well, they know the staff very well and they’ve got a good sense of what direction the governors want to take the school.

Also, it sends an important and powerful message to staff: that, actually, if you’re really good, then there’s an opportunity for you to move up.

Conversely, if you are promoting somebody purely on the basis that they are loyal and familiar with the school, that will, over time, erode confidence. That is not to say that they will not be successful, but it is to say that the process should be transparent and the appointment made on merit. 

External candidates can bring fresh ideas, new perspectives and a different type of experience that the school might not be aware of. So, it could be that a school that is very insular within a community benefits from someone who might be able to bring a national or even international perspective, and build those kinds of links.

When interviewing internal and external candidates, the key is to ensure that the playing field is as level as possible. Internal candidates will know the school, staff and pupils well, so expectations will be higher.


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