Time to tackle...interviewing senior school leaders

Interviewing and appointing assistant heads and deputies is an involved and expensive process. We get to grips with how you can get it right first time

Grainne Hallahan

College leaership: We need to support new leaders in FE - but also encourage experienced principals, writes Shelagh Legrave

It is fair to say the school leadership team set the tone for the entire school. They are the ones who will be managing your crucial middle leaders, and the people tasked with making the decisions with the highest stakes.

So, when it comes to filling a vacancy, how do you approach finding a new member of staff to join your team?

The strategy you adopt will be crucial in ensuring you don't come up against many pitfalls leaders face when appointing a new member of staff. A recent Forbes article highlighted confirmation bias, placing too much weight on experience or qualifications, and insufficient interviews as three common mistakes leaders make when hiring new staff.

So, how can you ensure your new school leaders are the right fit for you? We spoke to some experts about how they make senior leadership interviews work for them.

Before you begin, begin

Jude Hunton is a principal of a secondary school in Skegness, part of the David Ross Education Trust (DRET). Hunton feels that the interview day needs some serious consideration before you begin. 

"I think you should be clear about the purpose of the interview days," he explains. "Often headteachers seem obliged to have candidates encounter every employee in the school while taking on enough tasks to exhaust Hercules."

This style of interview process won't bring out the best in your candidates, warns Hunton. "You want to see people at their best, so don't drop them into Escape Room Academy. Plus, the more encounters you ask your existing staff to put on, the more your staff will start to see the day about their career instead of the candidates."

Running the day with your own staff as the stars will just mean you risk encouraging them to compete to impress you with the most esoteric criticism.

Instead, Hunton says, plan the day beforehand, so it's clear what each activity or process is intended to show you about the candidate.

"You don't need to parade people, instead you need to have purposeful people. Limit the panels but involve yourself at every turn," he suggests.

Tailor your tasks

So, what tasks work best when interviewing leaders? Chris Hildrew, author of Growing a Growth Mindset School and headteacher at Churchill Academy in North Somerset, designs each interview based around the job he is trying to fill.

“What we do for our leadership interviews depends on the role we’re recruiting for,” he says. “We always ask for a presentation followed by questions: I have found this to be a good discriminator for teasing out strategic thinking, planning and vision, which are the elements I need in leadership positions above all else.” 

Avoid the 'goldfish bowl'

Despite the fashion for more tasks in the style of The Apprentice, Hildrew eschews these high-pressure situations for solo tasks.

“I loathe "goldfish bowl" exercises where multiple candidates are in together, and I never use them – whatever we plan, I'm looking to evaluate an individual candidate and I don't think it's fair to ask them to cooperate when it's effectively a competitive environment.”

Swap the interview chair

A reverse interview task is one that Hildrew particularly values; he believes looking at how someone questions is just as useful as listening to their answers.

“We always include panels where the candidates have as much time to ask the panel questions as the panel are given to ask the candidates,” says Hildrew.

“It's a genuine two-way street, and often the candidates' questions are a good indicator of where their focus, values and ideas sit within the school.”

One to one

Although it isn’t a task as such, Hildrew also ensures that, at some point in the day, he and the candidate have a more informal conversation, too.

“I also always make time in the day for a one-to-one chat with every candidate. I do this for every teaching and leadership role, to get a sense of who they are and what they're about,” he explains. “I swear by this! Above all, the selection process is not designed to trip anyone up. We're looking for candidates to show us themselves at their best.”

And is it a good idea to dismiss people if they fail to impress in the early stages? Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, Lancashire, says not.

“Sometimes, after you’ve done your lesson observation and you’ve ranked the candidates, you feel convinced you know who you will be appointing, and then you get to interview and you see something completely different.” 

However, that isn’t to say it’s never a good idea to cull the numbers down. “If they were dire, then I would. But, generally, it’s good to see it through.” 

Tes Recruitment

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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