Time to tackle...shortlisting

The job advert is live and applications are rolling in, so how do you ensure the best candidates are shortlisted? We talk to some headteachers about how best to whittle down potential employees

Grainne Hallahan

The summer provides an opportunity for teachers to clear out their paper trails from the previous year, says Emma Turner

Once a job advert goes live, it’s always intriguing to start assessing the applications that come in – after all, one of them is going to be a new part of your school life for years to come.

This is why shortlisting is such a vital process and, as a school leader, you need to feel confident that the approach you and the school takes towards shortlisting works and adheres to best practice. 

If you can’t justify your approach beyond “it’s what we’ve always done”, then you run the risk of potentially missing out on the ideal candidate.

We’ve spoken to a range of school leaders in the UK and international schools about how they make sure nothing goes wrong at the shortlisting stage.

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The shortlisting panel

Your shortlisting panel shouldn’t include anyone who isn’t on the interview panel, says Siobhan Collingwood headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School.

Interviewing is a demanding process and she feels it is important that those appointing new staff are working together right from the beginning to make sure the outcome can be assessed as fairly as possible.

Liz Free, director of International Leadership Academy in Holland, adds that everyone who is on that panel needs to be up to date with their necessary training to ensure no candidate is stopped from proceeding for the wrong reason.

“Recruiting great staff with great potential is one of the most important roles of a senior leader in a school,” she says. “All staff leading this process have been trained in safer recruitment, and we are also increasingly working with staff around biases.”

This is to ensure staff are aware of how unconscious bias can impact decision making, to ensure that they can effectively identify great talent and ensure inclusivity in recruitment practices.


Essential and desirable

Collingwood believes successful shortlisting can only happen when you get the essential criteria right. “You shouldn’t shortlist a candidate who doesn’t meet your essential criteria,” she says.

“So, rather than find yourself in a situation where you have an application you would love to take it forward but can’t, you’ve got to get the essential criteria right in the first place.” 

But what does that look like in practice? According to Collingwood, less is more. “The key to getting shortlisting right is making sure you keep your essential criteria down to a minimum, and then use your desirable criteria for everything else."

It’s OK to call in the cavalry

Maybe you’ve advertised for a role that has left you inundated with applications, or perhaps you’ve got a role where you yourself don’t know enough to confidently shortlist. Perhaps now is the time to buy in help rather than try to do all the work yourself.

“Where specialist expertise is required, I would bring in staff with expertise in that field to support the process as well as representatives from across the organisation to give a range of perspectives,” says Free.

“When we have been fortunate to have high volumes of applications, it always feels fantastic but it also requires a lot of sifting,” she explains.

“I would normally use a specialist HR recruiter working within the organisation to do an initial sift against the essential criteria, such as the right to work in the country, qualifications and certifications, etc. This saves a great deal of time.”

Plan for dropouts

As is the nature of job hunters, you will invariably find that some of the candidates you shortlist take up different job offers at other schools before you even call them to interview, so it makes sense to keep your options open to ensure you still have a good field.

Chris Hildrew, author of Growing a Growth Mindset School and headteacher at Churchill Academy in North Somerset, suggests it is wise to keep your options open.

“We usually call a shortlist and have at least one reserve, as the job market moves quickly and we often lose candidates between shortlisting and interview,” he says.

What is the magic number?

But how many candidates should be on your shortlist? Once the job appointment panel has whittled down the candidates to a longlist, you can then decide on your final shortlist.

Ideally, you’d like six candidates, says Collingwood, because anymore can become too difficult to interview. “It’s all about getting through that process and being able to ensure accuracy,” she says.

“Any more than six and you’re going to struggle to be able to give the candidates their due attention.”

Stay interested in people

After hours of shortlisting, you would be forgiven if you began to forget that the pieces of paper in front of you are actually connected to real people, with real stories. But forget that at your peril, because when it comes to appointing, it’s real people you’ll be working with.

Ms Free recalls a time she almost rejected an application on the basis of his over-qualification and confusing career path. “On one occasion, I had an application for a junior administrative role from a person that had just completed a PhD in medieval literature and, throughout their studies, had worked in events,” she says.

As she read through his application, it seemed that not only was he significantly overqualified for the role but he also had no formal experience in administration. 

However, Free could see from his background that he was also a person with a great many interests, and his completion of the PhD showed her he had commitment. So she decided to break with normal process and gave him a call.

“It turned out he was driven to take a different path in life, and wanted to be in a team environment,” she says. “I recruited him and he was an excellent appointment who stayed for over four years. On paper it didn’t make sense as he didn’t have the experience in a like-for-like role, but the capacity and drivers of the individual made him superbly suited to the role.”

Other key points to be aware of:

  • Searching for candidates’ online social media presence is not acceptable unless you have sought their permission to do so. And if you do have their permission, it is discriminatory to check only the profiles of some of your candidates. Check out Acas’ advice on how to make sure you aren’t breaking the law when shortlisting.
  • You cannot introduce new criteria during shortlisting. The equality act 2010 covers this, and you can read more about it on Equality Human Rights bog.
  • When shortlisting, there must be someone who is Safer Recruitment trained. You can find paperwork to assist you from The Key, including shortlisting template and guidance.

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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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