If teaching and learning are the core business of schools, as we are frequently reminded they are, then selection of staff must be the most vital task of headteachers. As the session tiptoes through the examination season, recruitment of staff for next year is well under way. In these days of devolved school management, picking the team is one of our heaviest responsibilities, and the consequences of error and misjudgment become all too rapidly apparent.
Parents and indeed colleagues can develop the impression that teachers are available like tins of beans on a Safeways shelf, to be collected at a moment's notice. The experience of appointing more than half of Holy Rood's staff in the past five years has taught me that recruiting the best can be a time-consuming and painstaking process.
There is the problem of determining which subjects will require recruitment in the session ahead. This will depend on circumstances beyond our control, including retirements, promotions and the number of pupils in the new first year. This year's intake has been particularly difficult to predict. We know it is likely to be our biggest year-group ever. They will need chairs, desks, lunches - and teachers.
Then there is the thorny issue of surplus staff across the authority. Many are good people, displaced through no fault of theirs, and we do our bit for the corporate good when asked to accommodate them. Equally, we try never to place our own teachers in a surplus situation if it can be avoided.
Maintaining a balance of sexes on the staff is a challenge, as the number of male applicants is falling. Our permanent staff is around 75 per cent female, and this has crept upwards in recent times. It is difficult to present to boys role models of success in English and modern languages, when all their teachers in these subjects are women.
Teachers of business studies and computers are becoming a protected species. I recently read that financial services companies can't get good staff for less than pound;100,000 these days, so potential recruits in this field will scarcely be attracted by the salaries, prospects and public esteem currently afforded to teachers in Scotland.
We have found it impossible to retain computing teachers unless we have an immediate full-time permanent contract on offer.
It is reassuring that the quality of graduates from colleges of education is high. They are well supported by college staff and appear undaunted by the rejection they frequently encounter. More of them have employment experience beyond teaching, which is a welcome trend. While it is disconcerting to see so many eager young aspirants pursuing so few opportunities, meeting these committed and ambitious people does the soul good.
Recruitment to promoted posts is even more important, as the managers appointed today will have responsibility for developing and supporting the teachers of tomorrow. We have gone to unusual lengths at Holy Rood to make sure we have top players in key positions, and are greatly encouraged by the results. Other modern organisations are able to make adjustments to compensate for staff who are unable or unwilling to deliver, but the rigidity of the hierarchy which prevails in teaching means a duff appointment can have consequences decades later.
As we embark on making a total of 11 appointments before the summer holidays, I hope for the discernment which will enable me and my colleagues to find the best teachers available.
Like Moses in the desert, I can only face the journey with a good staff in hand.
Pat Sweeney is headteacher ofHoly Rood High School, Edinburgh