The not-so-merry month of May

17th May 1996 at 01:00
It's that time of the year again:Mark Ingall on the horrors of the annual jobs feast. Every Christmas at my grandfather's house we used to play a game called General Post. I don't remember all the rules. But I do remember that at some point in the game all the players would get up, rush around the room and sit down somewhere else.

The month of May reminds me of General Post. Another, bleaker image is of a feeding frenzy among sharks, with teachers as the victims, devoured the moment they put their toes in the water.

This year I can sit the game out. I received my new job offer in February - after a series of interviews for jobs outside teaching. One - which I didn't get - was for a good job, with a good company serving the public. Appointing the right people to the right jobs is crucial to the long-term success of this company - which I shall call Company A. And for once I would agree that education can learn from commerce and industry.

First, there's the death by application form. Why do education jobs have to start with an application form? Company A didn't bother. Good people may well be genuinely busy and absorbed in their present jobs and could be put off by a lengthy application form. At this first stage a CV and brief covering letter is all that is needed. So long as there's clarity about the kind of person required, it's a fairly quick task to scan the CVs and identify who's likely to best meet the specifications.

Company A couldn't believe it when I explained the significance of references in educational appointments. They get them last of all, simply to confirm they've made the right decision and to check any serious negative points - such as dishonesty. It now seems to me that the importance we attach to the reference system is foolish in the extreme.

References are one of the worst indicators of future job performance and reflect more the ability and outlook of the referee than the candidate. And who doesn't know a head who wrote a less than glowing reference because he or she wanted to keep someone good? And how many baffling promotions of weak teachers have been fuelled by glowing references from schools eager to solve a "problem"? As Company A said - better to collect your own data and make your own decision than base it on a third party's perceptions.

Then there's the endless time spent hanging around at the interview stage, paid for by your existing employer. As my A-level economics students would tell me, this has the potential for economic inefficiency and waste. The appointments system would be much more efficient if appointing schools had to pay for this time, perhaps in the same way that examination boards reimburse schools for time spent on exam duties.

Many schools still require everyone to arrive first thing in the morning when it is obvious that no one is going to be ready until half way through lesson one at the earliest. Mercifully few schools still require candidates to hang around to hear the result - most send candidates away and ring later with offers or regrets.

Wasted time infuriates busy teachers, especially if the interviews take two days. Company A has solved some of these problems. Where all candidates were needed together - such as for a group discussion - then we were all there together. But for other parts of the interview process the company simply offered specific times, often to suit travel distances or other commitments. I turned up, was interviewed, then went away to be contacted by phone (success) or letter (not!) for the next stage. Easy really.

Heads and chairs of governors seem to be an insecure bunch if we judge them by their interview technique. If they can't get someone to say yes now, immediately, today, they think that they never will be able to. Company A was far more relaxed with ample time for thought on both sides.

No school should be so desperate to fill a post that it requires instant responses to job offers. In most cases a move of school, let alone location, should allow candidates time for full and genuine reflection, something that is hard to do during a stressful interview day.

One head used to ask candidates to confirm before the interview whether he or she would accept the job - until one bright spark, who had decided she had nothing to lose, told him she regarded that as a formal job offer!

Some candidates accept a job which, on reflection, they know they will not feel happy in. It happens. I asked one school last year to wait for my acceptance to a job offer. This was allowed - and I eventually declined. It was nerve-wracking for me and clearly less than ideal for them, but I would not have done a good job there.

I never really understood my grandfather's game, and suspect that I won't ever come to terms with the way teachers are appointed either. In a people business, such as ours, appointing staff is one of the most important things that we do. We should try to do it better - or at least think about what we do and why.

Mark Ingall is a teacher living in Plymouth. He has a new job in Singapore.

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