It’s scary if you lose your head…

19th February 2016 at 00:00
How one school faced up to replacing its headteacher

It WAS the moment that every single chair of governors most dreads. Yes, we had spoken about it for some years, but the actual words, “I’m going to go at the end of next year,” set off a great variety of emotions and concerns.

Foremost in my mind was the fear arising from the examples of schools that have advertised once, twice, even three times; and still ended up with a caretaker head.

Would we be able find the right successor? What follows is our experience of trying to find a new headteacher.

Kevin Wilson has been headteacher of All Saints Catholic Secondary School in Barking and Dagenham for over a decade and was a deputy with us before that. Succession planning had been on our agenda and very openly examined. The school has taken great pride in its development of staff; we have been teacher training for years and welcome every opportunity to move teachers on in their careers. However, for a variety of good reasons, there is no expectation that our next head will be an internal appointment.

Our succession planning therefore focused on being certain that we knew what we wanted. We could articulate where we are in developing a vision for the next decade and we had the data to explain our current position. Crucially, we were ready to embrace a new head who would be sympathetic to the foundations on which our success is built, while innovatively guiding us to the best use of our opportunities, in the context of our current expansion, the wider challenges of change in education and the transforming local demographic.

National ambitions

The aspiration is to move the school from being a leading school locally to a leading Catholic school nationally, with the head recognised as a national education leader.

The next step was a general preparation for the recruitment. I called some Catholic school headteachers around the country and, thanks to their kindness in taking the time to talk through their ideas and experiences, I learned an awful lot. While each discussion started with the dearth of good candidates, particularly for Catholic schools, they quickly turned to teasing out the key features of our school that would best attract the sort of headteacher that we wanted.

As these discussions progressed, I found that I was ticking a wide range of boxes:

The school is not a basket case, but neither is it perfect. A new headteacher is not walking into a disaster, but nor would they be without a challenge for the future.

We are oversubscribed and are currently expanding from six to eight forms of entry; thus, there is an increasing budget and the potential to have a big rethink about how we address higher-level vocational qualifications and get our whole 16-18 offering right.

As governors, we have a policy of debating and agreeing our strategy and then being absolutely supportive of the head’s approach to delivering it, no matter who we may be at odds with to achieve it.

If the headteachers I spoke with were right, this job would be of interest to prospective heads. So, having taken the advice, a small sub-committee set about the process for the recruitment. The experience of other schools led us to look at recruitment consultants. We weren’t comfortable with headhunters, but we did want the expertise of someone who is managing these processes every day, is aware of trends and has clear ideas about what works. We wanted the best possible “pack” for applicants and spent time with psychometric tests to tease out the best way of describing the job and person specifications.

So we advertised, our advertisement worked and a number of those who visited the school commented on the honesty of our information pack and openness of the visits as key factors in their interest. Seven applicants were shortlisted to four and a tiring two days of interview activities yielded success.

Clare Cantle, deputy head at St Bonaventure’s in Newham is our new headteacher from September. The effort to get our process and information right had paid off; I cannot thank our governors, staff and students enough for helping to ensure a successful appointment first time around. I will be writing a follow-up article in the summer to document the next stage of the process: how to prepare for the new head’s first term in charge.

Dominic Savage is chair of governors at All Saints Catholic Secondary School in Dagenham and director general of BESA

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