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Clarissa Williams says putting candidates at their ease serves them and the school best.

When I was looking for my first deputy headship, in the late Seventies, one head took me straight to the girls' toilets. He said: "I'm looking for a good female deputy to make sure the behaviour in the toilets improves." I looked at him and thought: "This is not the school for me."

At an interview for a headship in 1985 I was asked bluntly: "How would you deal with the unions?" This was at a time when teachers were taking industrial action with a vengeance. How would I deal with it? My response was fairly considered, but I didn't get the job because, apparently, I had been too reasonable. They were obviously looking for someone who was prepared to confront and beat the unions.

I got my current headship, my first, soon after that. I walked straight into an industrial dispute, the consequence of which was that the school hadn't had a parents' evening for two years. I did a deal: I'd give the teachers two afternoons off if they gave me two parents' evenings. That's not beating the unions; that's negotiating so that everybody in the school community wins.

I remember taking a brilliant course on interviewing techniques that made us all question our own practice. The lessons I learned then have never left me.

We were told to put candidates at ease so they can give you the information you want in a way that allows you to make a proper judgment. Some panels set out to ask trick questions, but there's an ethical dimension to that which you need to consider.

I've always felt strongly that reducing the interviewee to a trembling wreck is no way to get the best from them. These days we also rely on more than the interview and involve a lot more people. I have heard from candidates who come here for jobs that some schools have treated them appallingly - keeping them apart from other candidates and giving them no chance to meet staff or look around.

We always make sure applicants meet the children and staff and get to look around the department they're going to work in.

What's really nice is the number of people who say they have enjoyed the day, and say they've been given every opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do. It makes you feel pleased you've put the time and effort in.

Clarissa Williams is head of Tolworth girls' school, Surbiton, Surrey.

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