Nothing matters more than finding the right teachers for your school. As we reach mid-May, the issue of recruitment becomes deadly serious. The endeavour to fill posts and cover late resignations becomes a loaded game of chance. The stakes could not be higher.
Beginning the next academic year with posts unfilled is the worst possible scenario. But appointing the wrong people is second worst. Forget curriculum plans, class sizes, budget cuts. Successful recruitment is crucial to the future of the school. It's a gamble that will test and unnerve the toughest of school leaders.
The recruitment process begins clearly enough. You could strike it extremely lucky and secure staff through word of mouth - the fortunate conversation at the right time with the right person. It's cost free and, sadly, rare. Or you travel down the far more common route, the well-worn path of advertising.
The composition of job advertisements can be tortuous for school leaders. Take a look at the copious ads that appear in this paper alone. There is something almost touching about them. They read like some kind of wish list, a common catalogue of aspiration by schools in pursuit of their dream teachers. The wording has an almost naive quality to it, a determination not to give up on an ideal. Everyone, it appears, is chasing the same person - enthusiastic, inspirational, creative, energetic, ambitious, dynamic, committed, innovative.
But what choice is there? Would there be any chance of attracting the right person if your advert was stripped down to: "Teacher wanted, apply to ... ". Much too high a risk.
Having struggled with the description of your ideal teacher, how do you present your school as captivating and, erm, irresistible? Ditto all of the adjectives above and perhaps add: exciting, forward-looking, supportive, rewarding, brilliant, and "outstanding", if Ofsted says it is. You could throw in something entirely original like "the school has magnificent countryside on its doorstep", but only if that's true.
Words, words, words. If only they alone were enough to secure the person you are searching for. But this is only the start of the recruitment journey.
Assuming you have some applicants, constructing a shortlist may start off well. The recycle bin awaits the English applicants who can't spell, the NQTs who handwrite then heavily cross out words, the applicant who submits a four-page, closely typed personal statement which covers every aspect of education ever heard of. Then it's back to the rest. But what if there is no rest? Mmm, it's back to the bin for a second look. But why should you drop your standards? So they're once more consigned to the bin. Now what should you do? Re-advertise?
If you find that you're lucky enough to have a field, calling the applicants for interview is the next tricky step. On the day, you may well find yourself asking: are these really the people who matched themselves to that wish list - the enthusiastic, the inspirational, the creative (see above)? No chance now to turn them away pre-interview, although clearly some should be shown the door before getting mired in a meaningless day.
The next dilemma is the candidate who gives a great interview but a poor demonstration lesson. What to do now? You ask the obvious questions: "How do you think your lesson went? Do you feel the lesson did you justice?" The hoped-for response is: "No, it went all wrong." Then you have something to go on. But if the interviewee is very pleased, it really is the end of the story.
The interview itself can be a morass of conflicting thoughts, gut feelings and, sometimes, divided opinion. Most senior leaders have made recruitment mistakes at various times in their lives, some more serious than others. The fact remains that it will bother you for a very long time, and shake your confidence, especially when your "wrong one" is in your school every day.
Yet the real potential of any candidate is rarely uncovered on an application form, or at the interview stage. The truth is, time alone will tell who will shine, and who will not. And this is why any appointment is a bit of a gamble.
From the candidates' point of view, pity the poor souls who walk into the school that has professed to be exciting, forward-looking, supportive and so on and finds, when appointed, the opposite, and the school nowhere near resembles the description in the job advert. Their advantage, of course, lies in the fact that they can resign soon afterwards.
Now that we're halfway through May the school clock is ticking. Time is running out before the end of the month deadline. The staffing cards are being shuffled and reshuffled even as I write. Unless someone falls out of the sky into your carefully carved vacancy, there is little chance to deviate from the process described above. Good appointments have profound educational consequences. How we all wish at this stage for a couple of aces up our sleeves.
Lindy Barclay, Headteacher designate, Redbridge Community School, Southampton.