Dear Ted

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

I went for a primary headship where the first part of the interview was a grilling by pupils while governors watched. Then I met parents. There was no chance to meet teachers. Is this acceptable procedure?

Ted says. I wonder if the other teachers were thought to be too scary to introduce to candidates. Since schools, especially smaller primaries, are usually close-knit communities, it is important that the people involved get along together, so I am surprised they were hidden away in a cupboard.

Headship appointments are crucial events. Some schools have only had two or three heads in the past 50 years and choosing a new one has to be done carefully. Mistakes can be costly.

Letting pupils and parents talk to someone who might one day be their head is not a bad idea, but what surprises me is that the entire process seems to involve lay people, to the exclusion of professionals. This may be democratic, but the professional angle is a vital one, so it should not be usurped. Children and parents move on, but professionals often stay longer.

There is a danger, of course, that teachers only want someone who is a soft touch, but this is a demeaning view of the staff. Teachers do not select heads, but their views should at least be known to those who do decide. That is why governing bodies are a professional and community partnership.

It all sounds like a decision by some strong-minded chairman of governors and it may indicate there are problems in the school about which candidates ought to have been told. You should have asked to meet the deputy and other staff, or at least asked where they were. Perhaps they were drowning their sorrows down at the pub.

You say Don't take it personally

Going to another school and putting yourself in the hands of a group of people, however keen they are to do a good job, is always a risky business.

Sometimes governing bodies try to include everyone instead of giving the responsibility to a panel. The larger the group, the more problematic it becomes.

However, they often come up with the most amazing selection processes in their attempts to include all the stakeholders. But I'm sure they thought they were doing the best for their school, so try not to take it personally.

Bob Fletcher, west London

Recruitment process must involve all Don't be horrified. Instead, breathe a big sigh of relief. Any governing body which takes such a bizarre approach to the appointment of its headteacher might be equally idiosyncratic in its relationship with the head once in post.

As a secondary head and governor of a a village primary, I find it hard to imagine a governing body and a staff team so subdued that they would collude with or submit to such a process, although I'm not saying that children and parents shouldn't be a part of the process. Let's face it, they're the customers; they're why we're here.

We've used students in senior appointments at my school for the past seven years. They are magic; they cut to the core; they ask difficult questions which are incredibly simple - "why did you become a teacher?" - and they can smell a fraud at 10 paces. My worry is more about the other stuff: the time to watch candidates in the classroom, with groups of students, in the playground, in the staffroom, in a teachers' forum. And then there's the caretaker and the parents at the start and end of school. A school is a community and so its recruitment strategy should reflect that fact.

Maybe you ought to pause for a moment and reflect on the day. You say you didn't get a chance to talk to the teachers. Did you take the initiative and get out there, walk about, touch the school? The interview is your chance to measure the school against your expectations. Every moment that you're there, you should be collecting and analysing data on what you see, hear, smell and feel. Is this somewhere you can make a difference? And if it isn't, walk away in the confidence you had a lucky escape.

Secondary head, Surrey

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