Recruitment regime for all seasons

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Every year I ask myself why we do it, and every year I come up with the same answer: because we've always done it! I'm talking about the mad scramble to appoint staff for September before we pass the May 31 deadline by which those in post have to hand in their notice.

Last year, we made two very good appointments and were able to complete the whole process, from the resignation of the previous post-holder to the appointment of a new one, in less than three weeks. But it put a lot of pressure on the heads and others who had to produce hurried references. It also left two other schools with vacancies which could only be filled by newly qualified teachers or held as temporary posts until January. It will have been the same all over the country.

All professional occupations have a fairly lengthy period of notice built into contracts - presumably on the grounds that there should be enough time to replace the person leaving or make alternative arrangements. In teaching, there is the additional constraint of three notice dates, in April, August and December. Again, the logic is clear: if staffing changes are made at the beginning of a school year or term, the disruption for children is minimised.

But does it really make so much difference? Children cope with other disruptions, including having different teachers brought in to cover their regular one's absence. Why would it be so hard for them to manage a change of full-time teacher part-way through a term ?

Clearly, it could be disruptive for exam groups, but that happens already. Staff who change jobs at Easter always feel a twinge of conscience at leaving GCSE or A-level groups in the lurch. A less rigid approach to job changing might enable more sensitive choices to be made about when it happens.

Another potential difficulty is the timetable. If staff moved at times other than the end of term, timetablers might have to manage significant rejigging in order best to use the talents of new colleagues. But, again, they do it already.

Induction programmes for new staff tend to begin (and sometimes end) on their first day which, if it coincides with a training day, means proper time can be set aside. But other organisations induct new staff at different stages of the year and, so far as I know, there's no evidence that timing seriously affects whether it's well or badly done.

Somebody is bound to suggest that it's all the computer's fault; that systems are not flexible enough to cope with mid-term assimilations on to the teachers' payroll. Strangely, though, it can cope with all kinds of other staff, up to and including chief education officers, arriving on the scene at any time.

If we could have a more flexible approach to resignations and appointments - maintaining the same period of notice (except, perhaps, for the extra-long period required in the summer) but allowing it to be given at any time, there would be a number of benefits.

Schools could manage their vacancy-filling more effectively; fewer stop-gap arrangements would be needed and the pressure of making multiple appointments at the end of May could be avoided.

For teachers, too, there would be an end to the anxiety which comes from the "if I haven't got a new job by May then I can't move until Christmas" syndrome and the need to make agonising choices when called for interview at different schools on the same day.

Instead, it ought to be possible to negotiate the timing of a move within the protective framework of a nationally agreed notice period so as to meet as many as possible of the needs of both old and new schools.

That would give some dignity to a process which at present makes teachers uncomfortable about giving notice too late for their school to arrange alternatives. It might also avoid the congratulations of colleagues sounding hollow if they know that a teacher's promotion won't necessarily cause another teacher extra work.

Too much emotion gets crammed into too short a period. Opening the whole thing up would bring us closer to other professions where recruitment is handled more calmly.

This can't be an original thought, which makes me wonder why I haven't seen it raised before. Could it be that we persevere for no better reason than this is the way it has always been? And isn't that the best possible reason for making a change? Certainly it would make the summer term less frantic for schools and job-seekers alike.

Mike Fielding is principal of Chulmleigh Community College, Devon

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