You will be intolerant of complacency, mediocrity and barriers to achievement...

14th September 2001 at 01:00
"You will be intolerant of complacency, mediocrity and barriers to achievement. You will be fanatical about high standards and best practice. You will be comfortable in the role of leader. You will be dynamic. You will know how to listen and understand that collaboration and consensus yield results. You will have superb interpersonal skills and be adept at forging relationships with stakeholders. You will be able to build a sense of ownership for the school in the local community. You will have nerves of steel. You will be under scrutiny by everyone in the world of education."

Congratulations, you've just been headhunted. Matthew Brown reports

Firfield community school has a reputation. Slumped on the western edge of Newcastle upon Tyne, among the kind of drab housing estates that have peppered the outer reaches of northern cities since the Fifties and Sixties, Firfield drew unwanted notoriety three years ago as the country's first Fresh Start school.

Now, after a revealing Channel 4 documentary, the departure of a high-profile headteacher, and little sign of progress, Newcastle city council has decided to call a halt. In a year's time, Firfield will close - along with nearby West Denton high school and two local middle schools - to be replaced by a new 11-18, "all-service", community-centred church school, All Saints college.

The decision to start again is justified, says the council, as neither of the existing schools has met its pupil or financial targets, and West Denton - with 50 per cent surplus places - is in special measures. On all academic scores, both are way below national averages: only 4 per cent of pupils at Firfield achieved five or more A to C grades at GCSE in 2000, and only 11 per cent did so at West Denton. Scores for English, maths and science at key stage 3 are also low.

After a long history of failure and decline, the switch from a three-tier to a two-tier system, and the creation of a whole new school, is seen as nothing less than the rebirth of education in the area. But All Saints will not be just another school. According to Canon Geoff Miller, chair of All Saints' shadow board of governors, it will be "a completely new model". Based on a three-way partnership between the church, the local education authority and Newcastle University, All Saints aims to be a new focus for its deprived communities, incorporating a health centre, library and university research offices, with a new shopping centre and swimming pool nearby.

With pound;6 million from the Department for Education and Skills and the social regeneration fund behind it, the stakes couldn't be higher for the new school, and the appointment of its new headteacher this month is a crucial point in its development. So crucial, in fact, that six months ago All Saints became one of the first state schools to employ a firm of professional "headhunters", signalling what could be the start of a new era in teacher recruitment.

"Getting the right headteacher is the most important thing," says Canon Miller. "There are some real difficulties here, and having the wrong headteacher could destroy the thing from the start."

This spring the governors had already been through one round of interviews and failed to appoint anyone when the DfES strongly "suggested" they contact management consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the company that is carrying out the teachers' workload study for the Government. "As they're our main funders we had to take their recommendation seriously," says Canon Miller. "But we also knew that the school is an unusual model and we wanted someone who could catch our vision. We felt we needed more than just another advert, and were prepared to do whatever it takes to get the best."

Headhunting has long been an accepted part of recruitment in the private sector and at senior levels of public-sector management, but it is a new departure for schools. Graham Goodwin, PWC's lead consultant on education, points to the firm's 10-year record in recruiting chief executives and directors of education to numerous LEAs - including virtually all the London boroughs and many of the other main urban authorities - as proof of its expertise.

Headhunting directly for schools, he admits, is "a relatively new area", although he says the skills required are the same. "Governors need someone like us to put the post in a more positive light and to look for and encourage appropriate people to apply. When you've got a difficult place to fill you are selling the job as much as buying candidates, and that's what we do; it's our expertise."

For Canon Miller, the decision to employ headhunters was as much about getting practical help as specialist input. "We will know at the end of this that we have been really proactive in looking for a head," he says. "They can trawl through every possible avenue. That donkey work is something we couldn't do because we don't have the expertise or the time."

As well as sifting through Ofsted reports, scouring examples of good practice and canvassing opinion across the profession, PWC staff also write the job ad, prepare a prospectus, and lead the initial interviews. "We wouldn't have dreamed of putting together such a glossy brief," says Canon Miller of the 32-page colour recruitment information pack PWC produced. "But perhaps we had to be persuaded to think that big. Just seeing the name PWC alongside the school and the LEA must tell candidates this is a school that means business, that we are serious about the process."

All Saints is not the only new school to have been persuaded down the headhunting route. East Middlesbrough city academy, a partnership between the city council, the DfES and a facilities management company, Amey, has also employed PWC to recruit its new leader. Like All Saints, it has received substantial funding - some pound;10 million - and will also replace two struggling schools in an area of "challenging circumstances". It too is scheduled to open in September 2002.

Richard Jenner, Amey's project leader for the East Middlesbrough academy, says that PWC was brought in to "broaden the search". "We know this is a challenging post, because it's not just about education standards, but also managing new facilities and merging two schools," he says. "We need someone very special with a track record in raising attainment in challenging circumstances and thought it would be useful to have someone do a proper search. Let's face it, there are so many jobs around that people's eyes must glaze over just looking at the pages."

Michael Smith, of the Secondary Heads Association, sees things rather differently. "Headhunting doesn't sit well with equal opportunities," he says. "There's a flavour of nudge-nudge, wink-wink about it; it smacks of a certain unfairness."

Mr Smith also doubts whether headhunting can be effective in a sector with such a high number of jobs - 300 secondary headteacher appointments are made every year - and such a vast pool of potential candidates. "It's not like a small industry where everyone knows everyone. There are 5,500 secondary headteachers, plus 10,000 deputies and several thousand senior assistant heads. Not even PriceWaterhouseCoopers can know every one."

John Howson, visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University, has kept a national database on senior school staff for the past 16 years. "It's such a specialist area that you really need to know it. In my view they can't know this market unless they've done an awful lot of in-house work," he says.

"But the different thing about someone like PriceWaterhouseCoopers is that they can say, 'Look, we can trawl outside the education field to recruit from other areas where people have appropriate management skills'. " The prospect of schools appointing non-educationists as heads, or even as "chief executives", is itself controversial, but Professor Howson is more concerned about movement in the opposite direction. If firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, with their extensive networks in the private sector, are involved in state schools, he suggests, "they might end up exporting people".

But both All Saints and the Middlesbrough Academy insist the schools are driving the process. "They are working to our script, not to theirs," says Canon Miller. According to Richard Jenner, "the selection is managed by our steering group; PWC is helping with it but we make the selection and set the criteria".

Nevertheless, part of the headhunter's job is to look at the post "from the candidates' point of view", as Graham Goodwin puts it, and make suggestions to clients about altering specifications, including the salary, to make it more attractive. John Swainton, chair of All Saints' staffing sub-committee, admits that their specification was changed after consultation with PWC, but sees this as another positive part of the service. "They made sure we were not setting our parameters too narrow from the outset," he says.

The headhunters also receive all the initial applications and grade them before the first selection of a "longlist". They also carry out initial assessments of those longlisted, "the moment when we trust them to eliminate people who will not be appointable", says Canon Miller. "Our guarantee that they will do that to our spec is the technical assessor (an ex-head) and all the discussions we've had with them."

For the SHA's Michael Smith, however, the very fact that headhunters are involved in selection is problematic. "The selection process should be absolutely separate from those doing the headhunting," he says. "Otherwise it will look like cronyism. There could be a temptation for governors to make judgments on recommendations that might not be absolutely reliable. This is not an exact science."

Mr Smith is senior consultant for the SHA's management and professional services division, which provides advice and guidance to all kinds of schools on recruitment, from training governors to writing advertisements, to preparing information packs, targeting referees, showing appointment panels how to score applications and interviews, and doing competency profile tests. Formerly a headteacher for 25 years, Mr Smith has conducted 160 consultations in the last seven years.

"We give support to governors to get their appointment right, to rule out prejudice and assist them in making evidence-based decisions," he says. "It's very much equal opportunities stuff put into practice." Mr Smith is aware, however, that more and more boards of governors are asking him about headhunting. "We have seen the field reduced by about 50 per cent over the last six years," he says. "People want to try anything to bump up their pool."

For David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, headhunting is "inevitable and desirable". "There's no doubt we need to look at our recruitment practices," he says. "The traditional one or two-day interview should be regarded as old hat and the use of headhunters would be a much better way forward."

He also welcomes the likely increase in salaries that would go with it. "It's part of the process of involving the private sector in education," he says. "And it puts pressure on the School Teachers' Review Body to make sure pay levels and packages in the public sector are equivalent."

As Professor Howson points out, however, headhunting is unlikely to take off among state schools - except those such as Fresh Starts and city academies where "money is no object" - because of the cost. "But the more the private sector gets involved in education, the more headhunting firms will get involved, too, because there'll be money in it."

PriceWaterhouseCoopers usually charges around 25 to 30 per cent of the salary of the post it's recruiting for, although clients pay less if, at certain cut-off stages, they are dissatisfied with the results. In the case of the All Saints job, the total fee is somewhere in the region of pound;25,000, plus VAT. The SHA service, by comparison, costs pound;5,000, "and doesn't result in a term's delay", says Mr Smith.

"It is a major investment," admits Canon Miller. "If I was chair of governors at an ordinary school I doubt I would have the finance to do it. But perhaps in these more radical situations you've got to make more radical moves."

It has taken All Saints since April to appoint a headteacher, a post that is likely to be taken up in January next year, with nine months to prepare for opening. The school has just three years to prove itself a success and win the trust of the local community. It's a tall order. But with PriceWaterhouseCoopers on board, the governors are confident that, if nothing else, they will have the right head.

If they don't, it won't be just the school that has failed.

WHAT IS HEADHUNTING?

Although commonly thought to be about hand-picking people for particular jobs, the process of headhunting, according to Graham Goodwin, is both more complicated and less sinister. "With any client, we first talk to all the stakeholders to understand what they are looking for," he says.

PWC then creates an advertisement, "branded" with its own and the client's logos, but giving only PWC's contact details "so people can call us for an informal chat".

For difficult roles, they also contact potentially strong applicants directly, having gathered information from previous contacts, Ofsted reports, reports of good practice in the press, on the internet, from the DfES, and other sources. Those who are interested, or persuaded, put in an application "like anyone else".

"It's the same application and the same interview," says Mr Goodwin, "The client never knows which ones are headhunted and which just cold applicants, so there's not an equal opportunities issue."

PWC then recommends a longlist to the client before itself conducting initial interviews and tests at its offices, along with a "technical assessor" - in the case of a school, a former or current head. After assessment, the candidates are grouped as "strongly recommended", "possibles" and "no's" for a shortlist.

"The clients should be confident that all the candidates on the shortlist are capable of doing the job, so all they have to do is pick the person who best fits their culture, aims, ethos and so on," says Mr Goodwin.

HOW TO GET NOTICED

Being headhunted is about being known and about managing your career, says Graham Goodwin. "Some schools can be a bit of an island," he says. The most important thing for headteachers who want to be headhunted is to raise their profile, and network.

Goodwin suggests doing some work for the LEA, or being active in professional bodies. It's also worth trying a secondment elsewhere. "If you want to move you need experience of the work you want to do," he says. Getting media coverage for your successes can't do any harm either.

You also need to think ahead about your career, work out what experience you will need for your next move, and start pushing to get it. Learn from others - talk to people who are in the job you would like to be in, and think about using a mentor.

Also, gear any applications to outcomes and provide evidence of what you've done. "We see a lot of applications that are responsibility-oriented," says Mr Goodwin. "We want to see success."

Finally, you can always introduce yourself to someone at PWC, or a similar firm, and ask for advice.

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