Recruiting a Headteacher – A Governor Perspective

The appointment of a new headteacher or principal is probably the most important and time-consuming task that a governor can be asked to undertake during their period in office. The person you appoint will need the professional experience, knowledge and skills to translate the governing body’s strategic vision for the school or academy into practical reality. On behalf of the governing body, the appointee will be required to deliver outstanding results and ensure that every child, regardless of their personal needs, receives the highest quality of teaching.

Whether you are asked to serve on the recruitment panel or have a general responsibility to ensure that the process is rigorous, fair and legal, the size and scale of the activity may initially seem quite daunting. This may be especially so if (as is the case for many governors) your personal experience lies outside the world of curriculum development, leading teaching and learning, integrating IT to support learning or special education provision, to give but a few examples.

leadership recruitment in schools has become a sophisticated process

In recent years, senior leadership recruitment in schools has become a sophisticated process and has adopted best practice from a variety of sources in both the public and private sector. Nowadays, it has become standard practice to incorporate a wide range of activities into the process to ensure that the governing body:

  • attracts appropriately experienced candidates, and
  • has a variety of filters which gradually narrow down the final field to only those individuals who have the relevant match of skills and the educational vision to lead the school.

Detailed consideration of the context into which your governing body is recruiting is extremely important and may have a significant impact on the approach that you decide to take. For example, if it is some years since the incumbent headteacher was appointed you may need to consider whether the character of the school has changed in that time. Remember that schools are vibrant, dynamic and ever-changing organisations. It may be that the roll has grown due to housing development; there may have been an influx of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL); the social and economic circumstances of the local community may have changed significantly, or you may have converted to academy status. All of these factors, and more, will influence the skill sets you are looking for in candidates and will shape key documents like the job description and person specification. Your recruitment strategy must reflect the school as it is now and all governors need to acknowledge that the task is far more complex than appointing a clone of the current post holder.

So, before you begin the formal recruitment process, here are a couple of helpful observations for you to consider.

  1. Gone are the days when potential recruits to headship positions will move around the country to secure a post. The cost of moving house, considerations about a partner’s career and job prospects and salary differentials between deputy headship and headship mean that potential applicants are much more likely to come from your local area (fact: 60% of headship posts are filled by people who already live in the area). The message to take from this is that you need to be realistic about the size of field you will attract unless you do everything that you can to make the job stand out.
  2. Understandably, governing bodies are very committed to their schools. However, it is important that in putting together your recruitment package you are realistic about the school and the challenges it faces as, inevitably, this will shape your approach to the recruitment process. In recruitment terms, this realism should include an acknowledgement that statistically:
  • rural and faith schools attract fewer candidates
  • primary and special schools have more difficulty recruiting than secondary schools, and
  • up to 40% of schools fail to appoint first time and are faced with re-advertising the post.

If you acknowledge the challenges that you face and adapt your processes accordingly, there is a very good chance that you will appoint the right candidate for your school.

Governing bodies that run successful recruitment campaigns often turn the traditional recruitment proposition on its head. Instead of seeing recruitment as a process of buying talent from an available pool of qualified individuals, they approach it as a process of ‘selling’ their headship opportunity to those candidates they would like to apply. To do this, determine what makes your job different and exciting and focus on these points in the advertisement and the recruitment documentation.

Following the initial discussion regarding the recruitment strategy, a governing body should look to delegate the management of the process to a recruitment team. While it is understandable that all governors will take a keen interest in the appointment of a new headteacher, the involvement of too many people in the development and delivery of the process will lead to inefficiencies and delays. If you are not careful, this really is a situation where you can set off with the intention to design a thoroughbred and end up with a camel.

Your recruitment strategy must reflect the school as it is now

Some governors worry that appointing a recruitment team means that they will lose influence over the appointment. It shouldn’t if you are clear from the outset about what the remit of the team is. If your group plans the process according to pre-determined criteria there should be ample opportunities to involve other governors at various stages. Remember that you are delegating the task, not the accountability.

The development of selection criteria is another strongly recommended action to take right at the beginning of the process. Once agreed these will impact on:

  • your recruitment literature
  • the person specification
  • the structure of the personal statement you request from candidates as part of the application
  • your questions at interview, and
  • your assessment of each candidate’s suitability for the post.

Once you have settled upon and agreed the selection criteria, stick to them. Do not be tempted to take someone through the sifting process just because they have an exotic CV. If they do not match your selection criteria they probably will not have the skills or experience to do the job.

The advice on keeping numbers manageable also applies to the interview process. Anecdotes (mostly true) circulate of appointment panels of 20 plus governors and advisers. Such numbers are neither fair to the candidates nor effective in arriving at a decision. There is no magic number for the final panel but ideally it should be kept to single figures. Also, when setting up the final interview it is important that all panel members are clear about the distinction between those with an advisory role and those with delegated decision-making powers. Any external advisers (HR or education) that the governors commission to support the process are there in an advisory capacity, whereas governors have a vote. The chair of the panel has a vote but no casting vote, which is why best practice is to ensure that there is always an odd number of voting members on the panel.

In local authority maintained schools the recruitment panel recommends the successful candidate for appointment at a meeting of the full governing body. Academies are not subject to the same regulations and (subject to their articles of association) are free to set their own procedures.

If your governing body appoints an adviser to support the process, that person should act as your guide to best practice and ensure that the process is professional and legally compliant. The adviser should offer input to the panel on:

  • setting the process in the context of your safer recruitment policy
  • ensuring sensible timescales for each stage in the process are set out in a recruitment project plan and adhered to
  • helping you to establish appropriate selection criteria and a sifting process
  • developing an appropriate job description, person specification and application form
  • marketing of the post (including advertising, a recruitment micro-site, the content of the application pack) so that you generate a strong long list
  • the advantages of using executive search to support your recruitment advertising
  • ensuring compliance with recruitment and equalities legislation
  • managing telephone conversations with long-listed candidates
  • site visits for interested applicants
  • taking up references
  • developing an appropriate assessment centre to interview shortlisted candidates (including assessment exercises, panel interviews, student input, teaching observation and interview questions that reflect the challenges facing the school), and
  • producing the relevant paperwork to support the selection process and ensuring this is kept as a safe and secure record.

Appointing a new headteacher is a complex task but one that is extremely rewarding. Taking the right advice from the outset can save you time and resources in the longer term. It really is cheaper to pay for professional support than be faced with re-running the process two or three times.

Happy recruiting!

Conexus has proved to be refreshingly accurate in understanding our needs, honing the search and finding us the most appropriate candidates. Organisationally efficient, Conexus has provided excellent value for money; we will definitely use them again.

Jan Paine

Former Managing Director, Herts for Learning

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