who must perform at their very best on the day, the future of the school in their tiny hands, the careers of the teachers in their fickle fingers. It is as if we believe that the measuring alone magically makes them learn when it really does the opposite, constricting their timetables and constraining their imaginations.
Life in general is, of course, a test. It’s a test of endurance, of stamina, of patience and temper, of knowledge, ability and memory, and we must pass these tests in order to build careers and relationships, to meet society’s expectations. Either that or we can, of course, opt out and go to live on a desert island or a park bench. Some days, the temptation is almost impossible to resist.
In the world of education, the ultimate test for a Governing Body is the appointment of a new Head. The challenge is a high-profile, high-costing, highly-important, and hugely scary process, fraught with risk. For a start, where should we look to find the very best candidates, people who are not only a cross between Mother Theresa, Einstein, Terry Wogan and Simon Scharma, but also willing to relocate to your humble location, for a sum of money within your budget? The days of placing an advert in the TES or The Telegraph and then standing back whilst applications flood in are, sadly, long gone. Today, the process will often involve one of the executive search and selection firms (head-hunters to you and me!). At least that route gives the school the guarantee that if the candidates frankly don’t inspire the Governing Body, you can ask for them to do it all again until they get it right!
When I first started in the leadership recruitment business some six years ago, Governors seemed intent on providing the sternest tests for the candidates. Applicants were provided with roller-skates so that they could speed around a series of complicated competency exercises, giving presentations, taking lessons, jumping through hoops and swinging from wall-bars. At some stage in the floor-show, candidates were asked to provide PowerPoint presentations on, ‘My first 100 days in charge’, ‘500 ways to improve learning and teaching’ or ‘The future of the school over the next 1,000 years’. All of these were flights of imagination, fairytales with no foundation in fact.
This ritual became so entrenched that I was surprised that candidates, having received the interview programme, didn’t simply withdraw. Why would they put themselves through that?
In recent years, however, recruitment processes have evolved and they now show far more respect for the abilities of the candidates. We no longer expect the Cirque du Soleil; processes now provide the opportunity for candidates to meet with the Chairman of Governors, the current Head, the Bursar or Business Manager, the Leadership Team, pupils, perhaps parents, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all! Don’t be misled, these meetings are of course tests, and the applicants are watched to ensure that they can speak properly, interact with compassion and humour, concentrate, learn, convey a message etc etc. Through these ‘informal’ meetings, Governors will develop a much better understanding of the potential school leader in front of them. A neat trick is to ask a candidate for a junior or prep position to take a morning assembly. Through that activity, you will gain a real sense of their ability to command an audience, deliver a message, relate to the children and impress the staff.
But in the end, more important than all of these exercises, meetings and competency assessments, it is the contextual fit between the candidate, the school and the Governing Body that really matters. As an external adviser and observer in over 70 successful recruitment processes, I still find it fascinating to observe that intangible relationship develop and cement over the course of the interview process. Without finding this relationship, meeting of minds, touching of souls, even friendship, the Governors should seriously consider not appointing a Head from the pool on offer.