The best interviews take place in the pub

15th July 2011 at 01:00

It is a familiar sight in most schools: the group of four or five smartly dressed, nervous-looking strangers making strained conversation in a corner of the staffroom before being ushered away for a tour of the school.

These are, of course, the latest interviewees. They stick out like a sore thumb as they are guided around the most recently decorated parts of the school, carefully avoiding any potential black spots. Pupils and staff alike eye them curiously (some even mentally marking their card as to the likely victor). They are taken through lessons, then the library full of the newest computers, before a visit to the shiny new staff toilets.

All this while being furnished with piles of information on the wonderful exam results, the school's recent achievement of Investors in People status, the excellence of its latest production, the quality of its rugby and various other spin.

For some, it will be their first experience of all this. Unsure of the exact protocol for the occasion, they will look particularly awkward. How loudly to laugh at the deputy head's bad jokes? Should one smile a lot or does that show too little gravitas? Should one hide that tattoo on the wrist? Is this skirt a bit short? Help!

For the more experienced there may be some jostling for position as they suss one another out. Some may make veiled comments implying that they have the job in the bag already and that all other candidates should pull out now and save themselves a lot of bother. Others concentrate on catching the head's eye by asking the most informed questions, nodding vigorously and generally trying to make the best first impression.

For the most senior positions, the recent trend in some schools has been towards "the more the merrier". They will invite as many as 20 interviewees for the first day of two, often at shameful expense to other schools and their pupils. Presumably the reason for this overkill is the fear of missing some possible gem who may not have stood out at the application form stage. Or maybe it is just plain dithering.

This crowd (what is the collective noun for a group of interviewees? A parade? A quiver?) are then put through a series of tests and mini-interviews in order - hopefully - to separate the educational wheat from the pedagogic chaff. Then the real grilling starts on day two.

How this all differs from my first interview experience.

The school I had applied to was several hundred miles away from my home. As I was booking into a nearby hotel, the head suddenly appeared and took me to a local hostelry, where he proceeded over the course of several beers to carry out the most informal of "interviews". By this dubious technique, he elicited a far clearer picture of me than anyone has since achieved in a dozen interviews. In vino veritas.

The following day I had a chat with the head of department, before being left alone with two pupils who proceeded to carry out their own informal interview (something pretty well unheard of in those days).

I got the job.

My second experience, two years later, could not have been more different. I arrived at the South Wales comprehensive and was told that I should firstly go to the hall, so the music adviser could carry out a series of tests of my musical ability. Following this, I was left in a room with pen and paper to prepare my answers to the four questions I would be asked by the panel.

When the time came for me to be led into the interview room, I could not believe my eyes. Facing me, in all their glory, was the full governing body, sitting two-deep around a large table headed by the chair of governors and the headteacher.

Fortunately, most interviews go more smoothly. Having now been on the other side of the fence more often than as interviewee, it is interesting to note how many stock answers there are. Most candidates will have prepared these in anticipation of the likely questions: use of data, essential skills, differentiation, bad experiences and how they learnt from them, strategies for behaviour, and so on. They will have in their mind a list of key vocabulary that all self-respecting candidates will deploy at the right moment in order to impress: "reflection", "lifelong learner", "tracking", "learning styles", "pathways", "transferable skills".

Of course, these days the most unsettling part of the experience can be the interview lesson, as applicants fear they will be the one who ends up with the most "challenging" group. A bit like the rodeo rider who fears being allocated the wildest bucking bronco, the fear of being unseated is always there.

Geraint Davies is head of arts at Llantarnam School in Cwmbran, Gwent.

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