Plain-speaking pays

Even if your school or authority is not a top performer, honesty is still the best policy. In Bradford, they tell heads to lay their cards on the table. Neil Levis reports

You're languishing at the bottom of the league tables. Only 5 per cent of your pupils gained good GCSE grades last year, the third worst in the country. So recruitment should be a nightmare.

Not so. By taking bold steps, Bradford Cathedral Community College - a troubled school with 31 per cent of pupils in special needs - found nine senior staff. And all for the cost of a half-page colour advert in The TES. The price? pound;2,500.

"We had 300 applications for the nine posts which was a tremendous result," says Kathryn Parker, the advertising agency manager in Education Bradford's recruitment team, set up when most of the authority's services were privatised a year ago. "The ad went in in April, and by the end of May we had all nine posts filled for September."

Battling against the odds to recruit staff is not unusual in Bradford, an authority which has had more than its share of distractions recently: a huge school reorganisation and rebuilding programme, closing its middle schools in a switch to a two-tier system; a damning inspectors' report in May 2000 leading to most of its services being taken over last July by SercoQAA, a private company; and then, in the same month, the riots that damaged the city's reputation.

Bradford's results put the authority at the bottom of the league tables - but that does not mean that every school is under-performing: 12 of its 197 schools have beacon status and many are attractive places to work in.

"You have to be proactive in today's marketplace because it is so competitive," says Ms Parker. "No situation is hopeless. You just have to be prepared to work out a plan that suits a particular school."

In the case of the Cathedral College, the Bradford recruitment team and the executive headteacher, David Kershaw, decided to take a totally open approach. They set up a dedicated phone line to deal with all the applications, thus taking the burden away from the school office, and sent out a pack that told it how it was: this is not an easy place to teach; there is a lot of hard work to do; but there are certain rewards available.

"The big advertisement obviously had a real impact - it was great value at the price for what it achieved and people responded to the straightforward, honest approach that we took," says Ms Parker.

The Bradford team, also known as the three Catherines - the other members are Catherine Dean, the recruitment strategy manager and Cathryn Stead - have revolutionised the approach their schools take to finding staff.

"A lot of heads have been here a long time," says Ms Stead. "The first time they recruited staff it was easy, but it's a different ball game now. For some, it's quite a culture shock - heads used to advertise and wait for people to apply, but you've got to go out and grab the people available."

Which means attending and organising jobs fairs to spread the word about vacancies, and about the flexibility and rewards of the jobs and training opportunities available.

Bradford is not unusual in having a recruitment strategy unit: 97 of the 170 local education authorities in the contry have such officers. What marks it out is its success against the odds.

The Bradford team seems undaunted by the negative connotations that have recently attached themselves to the city. "We have to take a practical approach to the situation," says Ms Parker."We go round to schools and talk to them about what they want: for governors appointing a head, this might be the only such decision they have to make and our job is to support them through it.

"We help schools to adapt their materials. We look at their recruitment packs and make suggestions for improvements - basic stuff such as whether the photocopying is straight, or whether we could improve the quality of the paper to create the right impression.

"We encourage them to use school logos to promote their image and to signal any awards they might have gained. Heads are now the managers of small companies and it can be daunting for them if they are not used to handling these matters."

At Keighley St Andrew's primary school, the job of assistant head was vacant for more than a year. Here, the recruitment team helped the school to prepare a new brochure which included not only information about the school but also details of house prices, local shops, maps of the area etc. And to encourage internal applicants, the recruitment team handled the whole process so that confidentiality was assured. The result? A successful appointment.

"Heads have to be prepared to put their cards on the table," says Ms Parker. "We tell them to have their offers ready for interviews so that they're not caught out - because today's candidates know that the market favours them, and they're going to ask what the school is prepared to offer them.

"Things change all the time. The interview panel must be confident about what it's looking for and what it's offering. We help heads to bone up on teachers' conditions and make sure that they know what recruitment and retention points they have available to make jobs attractive."

The Bradford team is also concerned that its workforce, like the rest of the region, is ageing fast: half its teachers are over 50, which is double the national average. "We're not in crisis yet but we could be in five years' time," says Ms Parker.

To combat this, the authority is exploring the "step-down pension", which allows older staff to reduce their responsibilities without jeopardising the benefits they have already accrued. It is a strategy designed to keep experienced staff in schools for as long as possible.

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