Seonag MacKinnon ponders the deepest mystery of the average teacher's working life
It is the eternal question asked in sotto voce conversations in school corridors: "How did he get that job?" What every teacher would like to know is by what process an individual is singled out to be the headteacher.
The question has never been more relevant, as education authorities latch on to the concept that a head can make or break a school. A good headteacher creates a vibrant, directional, caring organisation, a less good one adds to the pressures which make staff leap for the gin bottle and application forms for early retirement.
One education official makes no apology for making concerted efforts to gather information on candidates from more than the orthodox sources of the curriculum vitae and the interview. She picks up the phone to track down people who have worked with an applicant, to find out what their reputation is. She may also ring up members of a selection panel known to have short-listed a candidate in the past, to find out if they were rejected for any particular reason.
Prospective headteachers are taken on a tour of the school before the interview takes place. It is no accident that the bell goes and pupils spill out into the corridor as the party goes round, since children's behaviour at this time speaks volumes about a school. The official observes how the candidate interrelates with staff and children and later asks about his or her impressions of the school. She waits to see whether the wannabe headteacher noticed whether the children were on task in class and whether they were reasonably orderly, happy and polite in the corridor.
One candidate made an impression by observing that the school looked good, being in good repair, newly painted, graffiti and litter-free with children's work proudly displayed on the walls. He regretted, however, that by contrast the children "let themselves down" in their appearance. If selected, he would consult with parents, staff and pupils on introducing some kind of dress code.
Richard Hughes of Falkirk Council is among those against such unofficial strategies as phone calls to try to establish a candidate's reputation. "One of the dangers is that you are gathering subjective impressions, and the degree to which a contact knows a person will vary and could create unfair comparisons."
Hughes is not, however, an enthusiast for general psychometric testing of candidates. "I don't rule it out but I'm not convinced that it adapts all that well to teaching posts. It might tell you, for example, that someone is likely to work well in a team, but not how successful that person may be in the post generally."
Hughes is an advocate of the professional and rigorous use of personnel specifications which identify the key personnel attributes required of the postholder. Asked how to select the successful candidate, if two or more people meet all the attributes, he says "the successful person is likely to give the impression that there is solid evidence throughout the selection process of professional depth and substance along with a confident and articulate manner. You feel there is a lot more packed into this individual and that they are likely to translate statements about professional theory and practice into successful action on the ground."
He stresses that the successful person is not necessarily the person who turns out the very best CV and performance at interview. He or she must have the best professional match with the criteria for the job, but a recruitment panel has to be aware that although some people do not come across as well as others in the heat of an interview, they can turn out to be real crackers in the post.
David McGrouther, formerly of Lothian Region now number two at West Lothian, concurs that the winner does not have to be perfection.
Selection panels see many stilted presentations by tense individuals. In the minutes before an interview a personnel officer walking into the gents toilet discovered one flustered woman applicant busy grooming herself in the mirror.
McGrouther remembers one terrified candidate. "She stuttered and stumbled until we gave her a glass of water, then she took off like a steam train doing brilliantly."
He remembers, however, another candidate upon whom a glass of water had the opposite effect. It toppled over and as the liquid ran across the table towards her she went to pieces. Another candidate seemed to fall apart when she realised that a member of the selection panel knew her many years previously. Yet another was thrown when lobbed perhaps the daftest question ever asked at interview: "How many fire extinguishers did you notice in the school?" But panels cannot make too many allowances, McGrouther says: "Headteachers have to be able to deal with stress. Sooner or later an irate parent will bound into their office and they have to be able to deal with that."
A member of a larger educational authority says he fears that the school board members on selection panels might have difficulty with sophisticated psychometric tests. "It may be the only interview they ever conduct in their lives. How could they become so skilled that candidates feel they are being tried fairly?" He believes that school board members generally have a restricted approach. "They tend to be quite conservative and put a local slant on things. They can find it very difficult to overlook a good deputy or assistant head."
The official was privately outraged when he witnessed board members of a medium-size primary plump for what he felt was the weakest candidate out of six. "He was the only male candidate and they felt they needed a man on the staff."
While recognising the drawback of relying on just a 40-minute interview, he has reservations too over the idea of some kind of social function with wine and food before an interview.
He feels he himself was offered a job by another authority in part because he had trade union connections which made conversation over dinner easy with councillors on the panel.
"The danger is that the panel recruits some kind of clone of themselves. Anyway, how do you begin to score chit chat?"
AT THE INTERVIEW
* Look confident, whatever you feel inside
* Show a sense of vision
* Back up any claim to a skill with evidence of when and where it was put to effective use
* Show energy and enthusiasm, without naivety
* Treat the panel as human beings without being overfamiliar