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'Hiring a head is as stressful as delivering a baby and I've done both'

Joe Chaise, chair of governors at a primary in the south east of England, writes:

When my daughter was born, the medical staff arrived late. My wife and I were in the delivery suite of a major hospital, but a crisis elsewhere in the maternity ward meant that as the last stage of pregnancy took on its own momentum, I was left on my own.

With neither training nor prior experience, I took the role of midwife – and the experience was terrifying. I mistook the head for what I imagined was a hairy cervix; suggested pushing, when holding back would have been better; and only managed to record the infant's weight because I placed her on the scales while I tried to figure out what to do next. 

The tiny, wiggling bundle of life that resulted was well worth the stress, but I am surprised that my nervous system survived intact.

It is the only episode that induced anxiety comparable to the first time that I found myself in charge of the process of appointing a new headteacher.

It is the one moment in the life of a school when governors' actions are critical. A bad choice can set a school back for years, damage pupils' education and be all but impossible to undo. And yet, armed with just their common sense and a dusty manual from the local authority, that is what governors do every week of the year.

It makes for a curious inversion of the usual “interview nerves”. Traditionally, it is the applicant presenting before a panel of inquisitors, who struggles to maintain their composure under pressure. But when you are trying to decide which candidate can best steer the formative years of 300 youngsters, and navigate away from of the perils of “special measures”, it is on the employer's side, where amateurs are exercising their fleeting moment of power, that the hearts are in mouths.

The four candidates who had proceeded to our final stage certainly appeared to be the ones in control. All had been appointed deputy heads in recent years and all had, I suspect, been previously interviewed for headships. At least one, I guessed, had their hat in the ring to give them a selection-day trial run.

No doubt they were more tense than they let on but, it is a sellers' market if you can make a half-decent case for your plausibility for a headship. Indeed, I started to wonder whether a Dummies Guide To Becoming A Headteacher is in clandestine circulation, as three of our hopefuls appeared to be working from the same tip sheet.

This reached its nadir when we asked the aspirant heads to introduce themselves to a “tea party” to which we had invited members of the wider school community. Their pass notes must have suggested that – as they were likely to be in competition with other smartly-suited 30somethings – a gimmick would help them to stand out from the pack. Consequently, all decided to deploy a prop to make their introductions distinctive.

So it was that we found ourselves in a crowded staff room, at the centre of which were our four perspiring candidates. Each held aloft their talisman, doubtless in the hope that it would prove more memorable than their shiny suits. There was a rugby ball (the candidate’s enthusiasm for which was just as well signalled by his cauliflowered ears), a set of bagpipes (to remind us of their Scots brogue), a giant calculator (carried by the former maths co-ordinator) and a squeaking rubber chicken (whose intended association escapes me, save that it provided an unwelcome reminder of a terrible wedding breakfast some years ago).

The scene resembled The Apprentice meets Big Brother, produced on a budget provided by the parish council. My shame for having organised such an event is no doubt equalled by the candidates’ embarrassment when reminded of their participation.

In the end we gave the job to the candidate who seemed most enthusiastic about interacting with the children he encountered – indeed, the pupils seemed as impressed with him as the governors were. He was the most compelling for other reasons – on paper, in a work-assessment exercise and at interview – but the gusto with which he applied himself to his putative charges was striking.

Did we make the right decision? I certainly hope so – but the on-going concern is not unlike parenthood. You make decisions with neither preparation nor training and hope for the best. But at least parenthood is driven generally by a certain amount of biological determinism.

The arrangements for deciding who will lead our schools is an entirely social construct. Whether a better arrangement is possible, I don't know but it would not be difficult to create one that was less stressful – at least for governors

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