Outbreak of formalities

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Michael Conway recalls the days when interviews were full of surprises

She swept into the head's study, her long black dress swirling, and nodded her turquoise beret to greet the two governors. Ignoring the outstretched hand of the chairman, who had risen to welcome her for the interview, she perched on the edge of an armchair and zipped open a vast canvas folder bursting with folios of her own work and that of her pupils.

I tried to introduce the interview panel which consisted of two foundation governors, one a reactionary Irish parish priest, the other a flowery mother of eight.

The candidate for the teacher of art job informed the panel that her time was limited because she had two other interviews that day in neighbouring comprehensives. Art was not a verbal medium anyway, she said. She preferred to let the work speak for her.

Before I could stop her, she removed her beret letting her wild ginger hair escape, and bounded around the study covering the walls, tables and a bust of Cardinal Newman with nude female drawings, done mostly in black charcoal with the exception of two places on each portrait which were liberally shaded in a startling ginger.

There was a frisson of horror before the apoplectic parish priest spat out: "And what, pray tell us Miss Smith, would your mother say if she saw you in these brazen pictures?" As he posed the question, the mother of eight removed a portrait from Cardinal Newman's face in case the rear view gave offence.

"The nude that has just been moved from the Pope's head is my mother," chortled Miss Smith. She added that, in her view, the role of art was to shock as well as to liberate. It did. Before long she withdrew, head held high, pausing only to collect her work with a flourish.

I was reminded of these great days of spontaneous interviews last week when I was asked to review yet another dreary guidebook on interview technique. As a former head of a big comprehensive with a teaching staff of 130, I am assumed to be an advocate of "human resources management".

In trendy schools, governors must now be trained in state-of-the-art psychology and mission statements. Image and marketing policies, 10-page job descriptions and pre-interview strategy meetings have sadly squeezed the sparkle and originality out of the process.

In retaliation, candidates study books on interview planning, focusing on topics such as: cvs, unique selling points, eye contact, use of silence, what to wear, what to put in your briefcase, how to modify your accent, psychologically advantageous posture and "power words". All this dehumanising is needed to get a job which requires the human skills of communicating to children a love of life and learning. It is part of the corrosive process turning schools into businesses, and teachers and governors into company clones.

But the interviewing process remains as daft, as ineffecient and as unfair as it always was. The main difference is the tedium and the stress. The paperwork is mountainous. All those bureaucrats who can't teach have a field day. Inspectors, county officials, politicians, agency experts, governors and heads turn up dressed like Mafia molls and hitmen. Candidates to teach special needs to deprived children arrive looking like James Bond, briefed for psychological warfare.

Recently, I reminded one governor that in the Sixties I was interviewed for a job in Ashton-under-Lyne by a head accompanied by a governor who wore a cloth cap and bicycle clips throughout the sharpest and most precise interrogation I ever encountered.

"Cyclists are often astute," observed the Nineties governor, a wearer of silk ties. I didn't bother to disillusion him. My well-informed Sixties governor had given me advice about local housing as he mounted a scrap-iron cart drawn by a piebald pony. The entire process lasted 20 minutes.

Even basic appointments now take days rather than hours. PE teachers, who used to just flex their muscles and grin, now turn up in Armani suits, and answer batteries of questions with gloomy jargon.

In church schools, maverick governors are still a rule unto themselves. I had one priest who asked all candidates, including PE hopefuls, if they believed in angels.

Huge, neckless rugby players lost their flow, and then gave moving assurances that belief in angels was what kept them going. One candidate opened his eyes wide and, after a long pause, blurted out: "I think I could - if it was to my advantage." He got the job. Interviews can be fair - occasionally.

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