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Let's put our heads together

The recruitment process for headships is unsatisfactory and alternative methods need to be found, says Christine Whatford.

Many people in education agree that the single most important factor in the effectiveness of a school is the quality of leadership and management and in particular that of the headteacher.

Yet there is also now a great deal of evidence that it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit successful headteachers, particularly in inner-city areas and to schools experiencing difficulties. There are plenty of examples of head-ships being advertised two, three, or even four times, and governors eventually making an appointment just because they get to the point where just someone seems better than no one at all.

It has been suggested to me that no one wants a head's job these days: that it is too stressful and demanding. I do not share this pessimistic view. It can still be an exciting, challenging and rewarding job and there are people out there who are ready, willing and able to take it on even in the most difficult circumstances.

What we need to do is to think about how we find them and match them, particularly to the most difficult headships.

From my own experience I am quite convinced that the normal advertisement and recruitment process is not sufficient. I would, therefore, like to start a national debate on how we might develop alternative ways of recruiting heads. I see three possibilities. It would be interesting if other TES readers would respond or add to the list, particularly heads and would-be heads.

My most radical suggestion, which I suspect will not find a great deal of favour, would be to change the basis of heads' contracts to one that is similar to contracts in some other countries, such as Canada. There, the head is under contract to the equivalent of the local education authority, rather than to an individual school. Within a local area, therefore, heads can be matched to the needs of particular schools.

Although it is unlikely that we would want to change the UK system so that governing bodies gave up their right to appoint their own heads, it might all the same be worth considering legislating to give local authorities the power - with the agreement of the head concerned - to transfer an experienced head on a temporary basis to take over a school in difficulty.

I have had recent experience of arranging this and was very conscious of the fact that neither the head nor I had the power to bring it about, if his governing body did not agree to it. It is difficult for a governing body in such circumstances to see such a secondment as anything but a disadvantage for their own school.

My second proposal would be to start headhunting heads (or initiate a "search" as headhunters themselves prefer to call it). I have now successfully used this method of recruitment twice, once on my own and once in conjunction with a professional firm.

This method allows a thorough checking of potential candidates, both by talking at length with them before an interview and by legitimately talking to others about their current performance. It is a two-way process as it also allows the person being headhunted to check out the school, the governing body and the local authority.

Given that in most cases you will be talking about people who are not actually thinking of looking for other jobs, there have to be real incentives for them to make a move. This will almost certainly mean a combination of paying a high salary and possibly providing accommodation or a fixed-term contract.

In essence, if you are being headhunted you are in a position to negotiate an individual package. This kind of ethos is not one that is common to the education service, but if it delivers the goods in terms of finding quality heads then it is something that we should perhaps get used to. It would be expensive for individual governing bodies, but they may come to the conclusion that it is an investment worth making.

My third proposal concerns that specific and relatively small group of failing or seriously weak schools that have recently been the focus of so much attention. "Hit squads" have been tried as a solution, "help squads" are now being suggested.

What these schools actually need is a good permanent head who is committed 100 per cent to the school. This was certainly the discussion that William Atkinson and I had when I approached him about becoming headteacher of what was then Hammersmith and is now Phoenix High School.

For this very small number of schools I would suggest a step further than headhunting. A group of "super heads", drawn from the most experienced heads in the country, could be recruited on permanent, fixed-term contracts.

They would be expected to be the head of a school for a minimum of two years and a maximum of how ever long it took - not just to turn the school around but to put it on a footing where it would be able to recruit the next head. There would be a maximum number of times that one individual would be allowed to do this under their contract, possibly three.

This would mean one would probably be looking at heads within 10 to 15 years of retirement but still with sufficient energy for the task. They would be paid well above the going rate for the job and there would be the flexibility to negotiate individual packages, such as early retirement at the end of their contract, or a housing allowance if they had to stay away from home for a period of time. There are parallels in the private sector where people specialise in sorting out companies in difficulty. The whole exercise could be co-ordinated nationally by the Department for Education and Employment.

Would any or all of these proposals work, and are there other things that could be done? I would be happy to receive views and suggestions.

Christine Whatford is director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham

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