Leads to find a top dog

your head has just handed in her notice and you need a replacement. But how can governors with no professional background in teaching recruit a leader and be confident that they have found the right person?

The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) says the secret is all in the preparation. Jane Creasy, its operations director for succession planning and knowledge management, says: "Governors and the current head should regularly review what they are aiming for in the school. Good preparation can put you in a strong position in the recruitment process."

After appointing a selection panel of governors, you need a job description and a person specification. The local authority will have examples to help with ideas, but this is also an ideal opportunity to re-think the role. The NCSL says you should review the strategic plan and identify the skills needed to put your plan successfully into practice.

Caron Alford, chair of St Mary's CE junior school in Basingstoke, says: "We had full governing body training in recruiting a head from our authority and were supported throughout by our strategic improvement manager and attached inspector."

Given the dearth of applicants for headship, your advertisement has got to be eye-catching. This is also a chance to welcome school visits. "If we recruited again, I'd be tempted to run an informal open afternoon when candidates could meet pupils, staff, parents and governors," says Ms Alford.

Ms Creasy believes schools should think long-term and be committed to professional development for staff. "Schools should be growing the next generation of school leaders," she says. "This means there are likely to be strong internal candidates. It also enhances a school's reputation, making it more attractive to external applicants."

So what should governors look for in a head? Ms Creasy says governors should look to match the person with what the school is and wants to become. "It's important to look at the capabilities of the leadership team, but don't be tempted just to plug the gaps," she says. "I'd encourage governors to think beyond what first comes to mind."

A formal interview is only part of the process, so governors need to decide on the other techniques they will use to find the right person. George Tomlinson primary school in Leytonstone, east London, used an assessment centre that was being piloted by the local authority. The assessment showed that both candidates had shortcomings, so the school did not appoint.

"I was impressed with the centre and wanted to use it again," says Paul Dixon, chair of governors. "But the governors felt that the cost was prohibitive so we created our own assessments with a trained representative from the local authority."

Ms Creasy recommends using a variety of techniques. "Ask candidates to undertake an activity that is likely to be part of the role - some interaction with staff or students," she says. "Remember both parties have a lot at stake, and it's important that the candidate and the school have an opportunity to find out about each other."

You also need time to prepare interview questions. At George Tomlinson primary, pupils from the school council were involved in the interview process, so the children were prepared beforehand.

Mr Dixon says: "We talked about what pupils thought the role of the head was and what qualities they would look for, suitable questions and replies they could expect. It was the most fun part of the process for me."

"Recruiting heads and senior leaders", a guide for school governors, is available at: www.ncsl.org.ukpublications; also at www.nga.org.uk

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