Beware impostors

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
The murder of Billie-Jo Jenkins at the hands of her step-father Sion has provoked demands for more rigorous checking of teachers' qualifications.

Jenkins, a former deputy head in Hastings, East Sussex, had spectacularly upgraded his CV to enhance his promotion prospects. Ironically, given the nature of our business, there has been a tendency by many employers in education to take qualifications on trust.

The number of people who will resort to falsifying certificates is, one hopes, very small, but simple checks at interview should remove any temptation to embroider.

A much more frequent source of difficulty is the exaggeration of achievements by applicants keen to present a powerful case for advancement - an inevitable part of the application game, one might say.

However, many a bad appointment has been made where the successful candidate was able to spin a good line on paper and at interview, but whose more limited capabilities emerged when it was too late. Unfortunately, our traditional selection tool, the interview, is notoriously unreliable as a predictor of what people canactually do.

Research has shown that interviewers frequently: l allow initial impressions to play too large a part in their judgment; * give a higher assessment to those candidates who are most attractive; * attach greater weight to negative information than positive; * compare candidates with each other rather than addressing their suitability against the jobspecification; * change their picture of the ideal candidate in the course of the interview.

Supplementary tools are being used increasingly in appointments, particularly at a senior level, but they can be demanding in terms of preparation, and some, such as personality profiles or ability testing, require skilled assessors.

However, it is worth including some additional activity in every selection exercise for the alternative slant it is able to give. At the simplest, a double interview with, for example, two panels of two, each with a different focus, allows selectors to compare perspectives arrived at independently and avoid the group-think that may overtake single panels.

Group exercises can provide useful insights into leadership, interpersonal and problem-solving skills. In-tray exercises offer an opportunity to view the candidates' ability to order priorities and to work effectively under pressure. The value of informal discussion with peers followed by structured feedback to theselectors should not beunderestimated.

References should provide an additional device for judging the capability of candidates, but the information received is not always valuable.

It may be that the reference request is too open-ended - simply asking for general views on the suitability of the candidate for the post. Such requests invite bland responses. Schools might consider the use of a questionnaire geared to the specification for the job, and seeking more specific information on the skills and qualities required.

The legal position of references has been tightened significantly following a House of Lords ruling in 1994. If the new employer or the subject of the reference suffers damage as a result of a negligent mis-statement, they may have grounds for legal action. Referees are naturally more guarded about making statements that could come back to haunt them. When considering an appointment on the basis of vague or inadequate references, it is often worth a telephone call to the referee to obtain a more complete picture.

At a time when it is difficult to find good candidates for some posts, the prospect of putting even more work into appointments may not be attractive, but the effects of a bad appointment can be disastrous. No appointment process will ever be wholly infallible, but the more perspectives that inform your choice, the better.

See Archimedes, right

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