A problem with the packaging?

Part of the difficulty in recruiting headteachers could be the way jobs are presented, writes Peter Addison-Child

This hasn't been a great year for education so far - and for the 1,200 schools looking for a new head this term, it has been downright depressing.

The cheery folks at the National Audit Office did their bit for morale with their assessment of school performance - specifically highlighting the problems in recruiting for the top job. It was hardly a revelation, but not likely to ease governors' worries as the ads for head jobs go to print.

A week before, the National College for School Leadership released interim findings from their research into headteacher recruitment. What it revealed about the poor quality of many recruitment processes was sobering, though probably no surprise to candidates who have been put through the selection mill recently, and are about to submit themselves to the annual recruitment-fest again.

But NCSL research focuses on positive solutions. It is part of a year-long investigation, working towards national guidance at the end of 2006. It makes interesting reading - even for those whose recruitment pressures are more immediate.

Most striking of all was the finding that a massive 75 per cent of candidates thought that application packs for head posts did not provide an accurate reflection of the school. It almost sounds like a case for the local trading standards officer.

Dig deeper and it's not hard to see why candidates are so suspicious.

School self-evaluation data was largely absent, financial information was mostly missing and few included details about school improvement plans.

No wonder applicants have not been flocking to such opportunities. These days, we don't even buy a ready-meal without reading the label to see what's in it, let alone make a career-defining job move. So why should we expect the best candidates to apply for jobs that are vague and poorly presented?

In fact, patchy information can send exactly the message governors don't want: that there is something to hide. Candidates fill in the gaps for themselves: the lack of finance information means that there is an uncontrolled deficit; absence of performance data means all the indicators are going in the wrong direction. All in all, it is bound to be the headship from hell. Move on.

The irony is that a degree of "challenge" can be a positive attraction.

After all, candidates taking on schools at the bottom have only one way to go. But take on a high-performing school and - some candidates may reason - you can only lose.

Openness is a positive marketing tool. An honest appraisal of the weaknesses ofa school gives candidates the most important signal of all - that there is support for change. Applicants can be confident that they will not have to spend their first term coaxing a governing body out of a state of denial.

The bottom line is that effective recruitment is about "selling" - but not "spinning". As the NCSL's director of research Geoff Southworth pointed out, effective selling includes "every encounter a potential candidate has with the school". How true.

The analogy may be limited, but there is a reason why some supermarkets have "greeters" and train their checkout staff to say hello. Because it works. People buy from people.

In the same way, candidates respond to organisations that treat them efficiently, courteously and as human beings rather than applications fodder. Why wouldn't they? It's great when you can download the information you need instantly, when your phone calls are returned promptly and people keep to appointment times. It's even better when the processes of candidate assessment are focused and targeted (as well as challenging), instead of feeling like a random assault course of activities.

In the end, though, there is a limit to the impact that improved recruitment practices can make on a looming leadership shortage. A more responsive approach will tempt more senior and middle managers to take the plunge into the headship pool. But it will not create new reservoirs of talent. For that, more radical solutions are required.

As new school structures develop - academies, federations and trusts - perhaps it is time to take the teacher out of headteacher. Is it too simplistic to point out that few chief executives of NHS trusts are doctors (or clinicians of any kind), and that in the private sector top CEOs rarely have a professional pedigree developed through the ranks of a single business sector? The chief executive at Manchester United did not start his career as the team's centre-forward.

I suspect that there is job to be done to convince parents of such a step, let alone the profession. But maybe it's time to think about how we attract successful managers and leaders from other walks of life and into schools at the top level - and build broad-based teams to drive improvement rather than pin our hopes on a diminishing band of heroic heads.

Peter Addison-Child is director of Navigate, a recruitment consultancy in Leeds that specialises in children's services, education, skills and social care

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