These days, recruiting new teaching staff is less like fishing in a talent pool and more akin to “fishing in a talent puddle with lots of other people with sharp elbows”. That’s according to one anonymous headteacher, who believes that when it comes to recruitment, school leaders have never had it so tough.
Statistics recently published by admissions body Ucas seem to support this view. They show that the number of applicants for initial teacher training at the start of 2018 was down by 29 per cent compared with a year ago.
And fewer new entrants, coupled with rising numbers of experienced teachers leaving the profession, has led to a perfect storm around recruitment.
Being fabulous isn’t enough
“It’s never been more of a challenge to recruit decent staff – being a fabulous school is no longer enough,” says Claire Narayanan, assistant head at Levenshulme High School in Manchester. “One of the many issues facing school leaders is how to attract the right teachers when everyone else is fighting in the same arena.”
So, what can headteachers do to drum up interest in teaching vacancies in their school? And how can they appoint the right people, even when times are tough?
While advertising on jobs sites such as tes.com will ensure your vacancy is viewed by the highest number of candidates, Narayanan suggests an additional approach might be to arrange a recruitment fair and invite as many local trainees as possible.
“Ensure there are staff on hand for prospective candidates to talk to – particularly NQTs, who can express how well they’ve been supported in their first year,” she says.
Creating an easy-to-navigate website that underlines how the school supports CPD is also important, she adds. “Other than money, most candidates are attracted by the idea of joining a workplace where they will be developing and thriving,” she says.
According to Jamie Barry, headteacher at Parson Street Primary School in Bristol, social media is another useful recruitment tool. He has recently had success with a targeted recruitment campaign.
“We ran a social media campaign called ‘#BestSchoolYearEver’. The staff were trying to show what makes our school a special place. This [approach] will entice applicants to want to be part of your school,” he says.
Word-of-mouth recommendations are an equally powerful recruitment aide, says Helena Marsh, executive principal at Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire. These rely on your school’s reputation.
“Most of our quality applications come from the reputation the school has and the profile you create for yourself as a good employer,” she says. “However flashy your advertising, hearing about your school through word of mouth tends to be what attracts the best candidates to apply.”
Choosing from a small pool
Of course, getting people to apply is only half the battle. Choosing the right candidate from a small pool can be just as tough – although this does depend on the subject.
Sometimes, the talent shortage is so pronounced in a subject area that making a decision becomes relatively straightforward, says the anonymous headteacher. “Quite often, it’s ‘oh, we’ve got an applicant for a physics job – get them in’,” he says. “Then you ask yourself ‘are they normal’, and if they are, they’ve got the job.”
Thankfully, most of the time, headteachers will still get to choose from more than one candidate. This means they will need to give serious consideration to how to undertake the interviewing process.
Just getting candidates in for a quick chat and a practice lesson isn’t sufficient, says Barry. Instead, he advises setting “a range of tasks”, including unstructured time, so that you can see how candidates fit into the staff team and get a taste for “different aspects” of their performance. “Let them know you want to see them rather than just their ability to teach,” he adds.
Marsh agrees that the interviewing process should be as multifaceted as possible. “Have pupils go on a tour with [the candidate] so that they can feed back about what they were like to talk to, and arrange for them to have lunch with staff members,” she says.
“On paper, people tend to tell you the things you want to hear, but it’s the relational side of things and how people interact that will indicate whether they will gel with your culture and be an asset to your team.”
This is all good advice, but bearing in mind the data around applications for teacher training, it doesn’t look like the recruitment issues are going away anytime soon. In the long term, headteachers could benefit from rethinking their entire approach to staffing, suggests Hans van Mourik Broekman, principal of Liverpool College. Rather than focusing on recruitment, he says, headteachers should be thinking more about how to improve retention.
“Better retention means less recruitment,” he says. “It is better to focus on keeping and developing teachers who are committed to the school than to create elaborate searches for ‘new blood’.”
Ultimately, if headteachers “retain better and develop better”, they will need to recruit less, he says. That means spending less time fishing in the dwindling talent puddle and more time on what matters most: delivering excellent teaching and learning.
Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist