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The headhunters' guide to selection

If you want to find the right person for the job, you need to learn the art of recruitment. Jane Phillips reports

School staff selection procedures are under the microscope - and rightly so. It has taken Soham, an extreme and very disturbing case, to highlight what some of us have known for ages - that schools need to take a very critical view of their recruitment practices.

If truth be told, it is not only in the taking up of references that many schools cut corners when choosing staff. Those other schools have been lucky - they haven't been at the centre of a high-profile case. But, if their selection practices are inadequate, it is highly likely that they have made poor appointments - because consistently good appointments only come as a result of effective recruitment and selection practices.

The possibility of being "caught out" and the post-Soham Bichard report on recruitment are not the only (or the best) reasons for reviewing the appropriateness of our selection procedures. We live in a fast-changing world. Changes in the workforce brought about by remodelling, extended schools and the Children Act make this the ideal time for this review.

For governors there is also the problem, more evident in primary schools, of a continuing shortage of good candidates for both headships and deputy posts. Unsurprisingly, recruitment specialists are beginning to pick up on this, and we are entering an era where headhunting of heads could become commonplace.

So, what needs doing?

All those involved in staff selection need a better understanding of the principles of recruitment. Effective processes attract the right candidates and deter those for whom the vacancy is not appropriate. Effective selection procedures offer two predictions: they predict future job success and compatibility between employer and employee.

We should think more deeply about the effectiveness of our selection practices. Interviews are notoriously bad predictors of future performance.

Much better, and not too difficult, is to add a work sampling exercise where candidates have to carry out a portion of the job rather than just talk about it. I can't understand why so many school appointments are dependent solely on interview as a selection tool. Is it lack of understanding or just laziness?

We need to consider what additional expertise we should employ from outside the school. A useful rubric is: the simpler the job, the simpler the selection process. Top management jobs are extremely complex and deserve selection processes which mirror this complexity. This often requires expertise which is outside the norm within schools and must be bought in.

Money spent on ensuring good appointments is money well spent.

We need to consider the paperwork we produce. The advertisement and information pack serve two functions. Yes, their primary purpose is for recruitment but they can also be very useful for marketing your school.

These are public documents and you never know who will read them. The job description and person specification are crucial in forming the basis for our decision-making. With forethought about their content and style, we can make it easy on ourselves when it comes to decision time.

And, for those trying to recruit a new head or deputy, all of this is even more important. When there is a plethora of good candidates, there are several "right" choices - they'll just be "right" in different ways. When choice is limited the decision becomes more difficult. We have to be very sure of our process to be confident that this one is the right one for our school. Process then becomes vital to a successful appointment.

And finally, a story of two schools. One teacher I know applied for three different posts at the same school - because she knew it provided an environment in which she could excel. Third time lucky, and she blossomed.

After excellent service there as a key stage co-ordinator and deputy head, she went on to a successful headship elsewhere. But then there is the cautionary tale of the chair of governors whose reputation for boorish behaviour has meant that very good candidates for the headship of his school have decided not to apply. Which one describes your school?

Jane Phillips is an occupational psychologist, a governor and former chair of the National Association of School Governors. Her book, Recruitment and Selection, a practical guide for school governors and headteachers, is available from Adamson Books 01353 649238.

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