Nice face...shame about the lip synch

Recruiting teachers from overseas? Why not try video-conferencing? The time lapses can be disconcerting, but it lets you see who you are hiring and it's cheaper than flying around the world, says Martin Whittaker

In January, Brooke Gorman flew from sweltering Sydney to work as a history teacher in South Yorkshire. "I got off the plane in Manchester and it was about four degrees," she says. "When I left Sydney it was 40. They all laughed at me here because I was wearing so many layers."

But acclimatising to life at Clifton comprehensive school, Rotherham, was helped by having spoken to the headteacher and other members of staff face-to-face using the school's technology.

Ms Gorman, aged 24, was interviewed from a recruitment agency's office in Sydney via a video conference link-up.

"It was bizarre," she says. "There's a bit of a delay between their lips moving and them talking. You have to wait until they've finished and then talk and they wait for your response.

"But it was a lot more helpful than phone interviews I've had with other schools in the UK. It made such a difference being able to see the people and what was going on around them.

"At one point I could talk to four people all at once, including a teacher from Canada and another NQT (newly qualified teacher) who had just joined. So it was good to get everybody's opinions."

Clifton's headteacher, Phil Marshall, believes the system has many advantages: "It also gave other colleagues a chance to talk. They could have done it over the phone, but it's an opportunity for everybody to see who they'll be working with. And it's cheaper than flying out to Australia."

The webcam interview was set up by Hays Education Personnel, a recruitment agency. As schools increasingly look abroad for teachers, the company has been touting this method as an innovative way of selecting the right staff.

All you need are computer and webcam facilities, which many schools already have. Hays also offers heads the use of portable video telephones which have a 5in display screen and can transmit live images across the globe directly to an interview panel.

Graham Ruck, Hays' overseas recruitment manager, says: "It can reassure headteachers and deputies of the calibre of a candidate in a far more realistic mode than just a telephone interview.

"We're looking at bringing in people who don't necessarily have an entitlement to work in the United Kingdom. But by virtue of a successful interview, then schools can provide sponsorship and bring people in - that's been working very successfully."

So what do heads think?

Victor Burgess, head of the Elliott School in Fulham, south-west London, used Hays' video-telephone to interview an Australian maths teacher last year.

"He's actually a very good maths teacher - we're delighted with him," he says. "I would be very uneasy at appointing somebody I had not met and who had not been properly interviewed. Given the difficulties in finding staff last year, I didn't want to say yea or nay to bits of paper passing across my desk. I wanted the opportunity to interview.

"It was so easy - they came in, plugged it in and it was as simple as that. I was also able to do it with one of my deputies who's a mathematician and was able to ask more technical questions."

Phil Taylor, head of Stamford High School in Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester and an executive member of the Secondary Heads' Association, says he has not yet tried video- conference interviewing.

"I'd certainly be interested in it as a way of trying to find out whether people would be suitable if you can't meet them face to face.

"There's a whole argument about whether you should be taking people from abroad anyway - many come from countries which are short of teachers to start with.

"But if you are going to look at people from overseas, the more you can get a real impression of what they're like and the more you can get them to talk about what they might have to offer, the better."

Hays makes bold claims for the new system: "This really is the way forward when it comes to overcoming the teacher shortage in the UK, and is an excellent way to open up a much-needed broader pool of candidates from overseas," trumpets a press release .

But can a panel really make proper judgements based on what they see on a screen?

Reed Education Professionals, another recruitment agency, says it pioneered the use of video- conferencing for interviews in the late 1990s. But Katy Nicholson, a spokeswoman, says that, apart from its use by big blue chip companies to interview overseas for senior management posts, it has not exactly swept the nation.

Being interviewed by webcam can be disconcerting because of the time lapse. The interviewer asks a question and there's a delay of a few seconds before the question reaches the interviewee, and vice versa.

"In 1997, we thought it might catch on, but like all new technology it's definitely got its place," she says. "We would never recommend relying on just one technique when you're recruiting. As everybody knows, communication skills are a vital part of teaching, and a high proportion of communication takes place visually rather than just the sound of a voice.

"Video-conferencing gives you a better idea of a someone's communication skills. But there's no doubt that you get less information through it than you would through a face-to-face meeting."

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