The head hunt: how to recruit your next school leader

Finding a new headteacher is one of the most important and challenging jobs a governing board will undertake. Here, we guide governors through the recruitment process

Michael Barton

Recruitment Headteacher

For a school’s governing body, recruiting a headteacher is one of its most important and difficult jobs.

The governing body is the guardian of the school or academy trust’s ethos and strategic direction. When a headteacher (or whatever title you give to your senior executive leader) leaves, those governing are responsible for ensuring that the school’s long-term strategy and culture are not lost during the transition.

Here are some tips from Michael Barton, advice officer for the National Governance Association, on getting the recruitment process right.

Agree on a panel

In maintained schools, the governing body must agree a selection panel of at least three governors. There is no limit on panel members; the key is to find a balance between having a sufficient range of skills and expertise, but not allowing the panel to get so large that it becomes unfocused.

In general, we would recommend a panel of around five governors. Academy trusts do not need to follow the same regulations, but will usually end up with a panel composition similar to that seen in maintained schools in practice.

Maintained schools are required by law to have at least one selection panel member who has completed safer recruitment training, while it is good practice in academies. In maintained schools, where the local authority is the legal employer, the authority has a right to attend all proceedings of the selection panel.

In maintained schools where the local authority is not the legal employer, the authority still retains a right to provide written advice, which the panel must consider, and to be notified of the names of applicants shortlisted for interview.

Define the role

The recruitment panel will first need to produce a job description and person specification. These documents are a crucial opportunity to define the role and consider the qualifications, experience and skills you are looking for.

The key is not to simply regurgitate your current headteacher’s role and qualities but, instead, to consider the future needs of the school in line with your strategic vision.

Advertise the position

The advertisement is a crucial stage of the process because it allows the school or trust to sell itself to potential candidates. However well-organised your process it, that will not be enough if you cannot encourage the best candidates to put themselves forwards.

Advertisements (and the rest of the process) should be timed to take the resignation deadlines for serving headteachers into account.

There are limited cases where a school can appoint without advertising the post but this will need to be justified, and is not ideal as it fundamentally reduces the options available to the panel.

Shortlist the applicants

The next stage is to reduce the applications received to only those who meet the specification and whom the panel feels should be interviewed. The shortlisting process should be carefully structured and carried out with the person specification criteria in mind.

Care is needed to ensure that good candidates are not missed, and that time is not wasted with applicants who do not meet the essential criteria. Those involved need to be confident that they could justify any differentiation between the candidates in the event of an appeal.

Following shortlisting, references should be taken up and carefully cross-checked.

Tes recruitment director Michael Watson gives his tips on shortlisting for a headteacher position

Plan the interview

After the shortlisting is completed, those governing will need to consider the structure of interview day. At this point, the input of a HR adviser can be useful.

Candidates could be tested in an array of ways, including through making presentations to the panel, teaching a lesson or leading an assembly. It is important to be transparent with candidates about whether a task is simply an opportunity to see the school or whether it will form part of the final decision.

Almost any process will involve an interview, and core questions should be planned in advance so there is fairness between candidates. Key skills and knowledge identified in the person specification will likely be points of focus.

A key element of good practice is to ensure that the questioner maintains eye contact with the candidate while someone else on the panel takes notes.

Make the decision 

Each panel member should score every candidate individually, and these scores will provide the basis of the decision. Appointment will often require ratification by the whole governing board, so the post should not be offered until this has occurred.

In general, it is best practice to contact the successful candidate on the same day as the interviews take place, and to avoid contacting unsuccessful candidates until the role has been verbally accepted.

As a final point, sometimes none of the candidates will be suitable. Although this will feel like a disappointing outcome, it is important to recognise the fact that no one was quite right for the role and recruit again rather than appointing a candidate who isn’t suitable. 

Michael Barton is advice officer for the National Governance Association (NGA).

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