Let's knock job interviews into shape

The current glut of vacant teaching posts makes the thought of moving onwards and upwards tempting. But is it that easy?

The interview process for a middle management or even a senior post remains, to the profession's shame, muddled and unsatisfactory. Without a common structure and focus, each institution tries its best, but the trend is towards complicated and arduous interviews.

The muddle begins with the job description - longer is better, it seems. Perhaps the length is to deter candidates, but many of the stipulations are vague. "Must have good sense of humour." I thought that usually appeared in lonely hearts ads. And what does it mean? Should I tell risque jokes at interview? The same applies to "capacity for hard work". Come off it - what teacher of any number of years' standing lacks a capacity for hard work? At the last interview I attended, the head told me afterwards, without irony or shame, that the panel had selected the candidate they liked best and thought would best get on with the staff. There seemed little point, he said, in hiring a consultant, testing knowledge in a variety of ways and wasting 12 applicants' time.

Not only are job descriptions getting longer, but so are the interviews. Gone are the days of the half-hour chat.

But if interviews are going to be more complex and involve more people, those involved must be trained. I've been asked, "What do you think about finance?" by an amateur interviewer who presumably hoped to get a precise and analytical answer. I have also been asked, "What is the purpose of the lunch hour?" without any hint as to why this might be important in selecting a middle manager. We would not expect our students to answer such vague and open questions with a pithy response, yet candidates' failure to do so justifies, in the mind of the head, the selection of someone on unspecified criteria. Occasionally, interviews are rigged, which is usually obvious fairly early on, but this unconscious bias is more worrying.

It is time for national standards for job interviews, towards which all candidates can work. Thus, an aspiring head of department should be training and developing those skills while still second in a department. Candidates should follow nationally recognised courses, with certificates that form part of a "personal portfolio". The summary information from observed lessons should also form part of this portfolio, ending the time-consuming farce of trying to teach a 20-minute lesson to a group of pupils you've never met before.

The appointing panel could examine all this information before the interview, and could then focus on the specific requirements of the post. All interviewers should attend training courses on interview procedure and techniques. The interview structure should follow nationally agreed guidelines, and candidates should always be asked for their views after the experience.

If teaching is to be considered a profession, we must organise ourselves more clearly and rationally into a professional body with national standards.

The General Teaching Council should move this issue forward. There are implications for staff development at every level, but the nightmarish and Kafkaesque interview process demands urgent attention.

Sue Dixon

Sue Dixon is head of Year 9 at Willingdon community school, Eastbourne

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