The first time I went to South Africa was a couple of years after the end of apartheid. Having waited so long, I was determined not only to make a huge success of the teacher recruitment exercise with which I was charged, but also to make a fair stab at getting to understand the problems facing South African education.
My planning was spot on. I consulted perhaps a score of "experts" ranging from the great and the good to headteachers and education authorities. Finally, I went to South Africa House to meet with the then education officer. I could see that he was impressed with my knowledge of how the curriculum should be standardised to allow for common development across the new nation. My equal opportunities stance would have had them cheering in the aisles at the Easter conferences. My pronunciation of "Kwazulu Natal" was honed to perfection. Then he dropped the bombshell.
It was contained in the South African government's document outlining priorities in education. The words haunt me to this day, and recur in my most hideous nightmares: "Our priority is the electrification of schools..." And I'd been offering them a free batch of modems.
I learned from that experience, as I have from many another faux pas before and since, that however much you may think you know about a given subject there is always someone who knows a little bit more. Not to mention, that is, the many others who claim to, but don't. I was reminded of this when reading Stuart Newton's piece "Calling international rescue" (TES, July 27.) Mr Newton tells us how he recruited seven teachers on a recent foray into South Africa. My company normally recruits about 10 times that number in two weeks in SA, and over the past 10 years has probably recruited close to 7,000, but let's leave that to one side. What did concern me is that Mr Newton, no doubt with the very best of intentions, got it wrong when he turned recruiter. (If it's any consolation, his school Selsdon high would definitely be on ultra-special measures if I spent a few days there as headteacher.) A multi-million pound recruitment industry now exists in education because there are enough recruitment experts to offer their services. OK, we're private sector but just to demonstrate that some of us are nice people, really, I'd like to share a little of my experience of South African recruitment with Mr Newton or any other headteachers who are planning a temporary change of career into my field. Here, then, are my top five tips.
* We never, ever, "trawl for teachers". Teachers are not fish. They are professionals who expect and deserve to be treated with respect.
* South African teachers do not need to travel to Pretoria to obtain a visa. This is technically complex, but I would be happy to explain it in person.
* Why aren't we recruiting the 10,000 surplus teachers who qualified at the end of the last academic year? Many South Africans (white as well as black) cannot speak English well enough to hold their own in a UK classroom. (On average, to recruit 60 teachers, our Cape Town office has to speak to some 1,200 applicants.) This is not a criticism - my Xhosa is pretty limited.
Quite apart from this, intending recruiters should be aware that the SA education minister, Professor Asmal, has repeatedly in recent months expressed his concern about teacher migration. A little sensitivity goes a long way.
* I agree that "serious talks" should take place at ministerial level between our government and that of the South Africans. The only difference is that I know that they did take place, about six weeks ago, in London.
* Yes, "simplifying and accelerating" visa and work permit applications is a great idea. Maybe that's why our Government did that last year.
The function of government is not to deliver on overseas recruitment, as Mr Newton suggests. The role of government should be to implement and operate a legislative framework which facilitates professional recruitment. It seems to me that the current government knows this and acts accordingly. As an act of faith with the South African government, and at their request, we agreed some time ago not to target the maths and science teachers whom Mr Newton was successful in finding.
It would be remiss of me not to congratulate Stuart Newton on his enterprise. Nonetheless, I hope these tips help to illustrate that the wheel of international recruitment is not really in need of reinvention. It works, and it works rather well.
Ian Penman is director of TimePlan