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Live bait nets the right catch

Laurence Pollock on how to fulfil a governor's most important role - choosing the head

IT might be the most important thing you do as a school governor. You may never get to do it again. It could affect the whole school, staff, children and parents for years to come. So how do governors shape up to appointing a new head?

Recruitment and selection procedures have sharpened up in the past 25 years with an emphasis on equal opportunities. Good practice means asking candidates similar questions and having an agreed person specification and job description. But panel members might have gaps in their knowledge: when to place the advertisement in The TES, what to do about cover while the successful applicant works out a term's notice?

Normally, a panel appoints and other governors ratify that same evening.

Challenging the panel's recommendation is almost unheard of but the full board need not rubber stamp.

Jean McEntire, general secretary of the National Governors' Council, says there should be discussion among all governors early on about the kind of appointment the school needs. "If the panel is given a clear steer there will not be disappointment later on," she said.

Experiences vary and so does support. Local education authorities provide back-up and training, as do the Industrial Society, the Secondary Heads'

Association, and the National Association of Governors and Managers.

Some use "live bait" - aspirant heads who role-play as applicants for governors. Both parties benefit. Neil Davies, chair of the City of Portsmouth girls' school, says authority back-up is vital. He went on a two-day LEA course with "live" applicants. After the first round of interviews, tutors provide governors with feedback. They also advise the candidates.

Andy Heaword, a Portsmouth governor support officer, says that when the interviews are re-run there is "immense" improvement.

Some governors, especially chairs, might be quite seasoned. Lucinda Poliakoff is chair of Avenue first school in Norwich, and has led two heads' appointments in the last four years. Her experience showed through in the approach to timing and to sending candidates information.

The school agreed to the appointment of an acting head for a year because it wanted the new head to start at the beginning of the academic year. The applicant's "pack" was burned on to a CD- Rom.

Dr Poliakoff said: "We would expect the head to be computer literate so this format should not be a problem." But despite her expertise, she still acknowledges it was an ordeal. "Afterwards we all felt totally shattered, by the responsibility of it. And we had to organise the sandwiches ourselves."

Greenfold special school in Bolton used psychometric testing as part of its selection. But the chair, Phil Collier, has a word of caution: "I have used in-tray exercises but psychometric testing was a new one for me. After we had done the interviews and come to a fairly firm conclusion, we looked at the psychometric results as a confirmation of our decision. If the test had suggested something different we would have had to discuss how we interpreted the results. But that was not necessary."

The Secondary Heads' Association offers consultancy provided by former heads. Harvey Black, a former headteacher who developed SHA's training, has a word of encouragement for those overwhelmed by it all.

"We have always been impressed by the quality of the governors on panels.

There is always a role for an intuitive governor who simply asks 'Is this a warm human being who will relate to children?' " Perhaps that is a good benchmark for any recruitment process, no matter how sophisticated.


* Plan meetings to agree job description, person specification, timing of advertisement and procedures. Use the same group on the panel throughout.

How will the post be covered if the successful applicant has to work out a term's notice?

* Get whatever support is available - from LEA or other bodies.

* Offer candidates the chance to show their full capabilities and personality. This might mean a two-day process - visits on the first, interviews on the second, maybe presentations andor an assessment of certain skills such as report preparation.

* Make sure candidates know how they will be informed of the decision. For those people whose applications are unsuccessful, try to offer guidance that will assist them in their professional development and future job applications.

* Absolute confidentiality - no gossip. You may know for all time that the final appointment was not the first choice - the appointed applicant might (and should) never know this.

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