Recruiting Heads: The most important decision school governors take?

April 2015

The most critical factor in the success of any school is the quality of its staff. As head teachers have overall responsibility for selecting, managing and developing school staff, their all-pervading influence ultimately determines whether a school will be successful or not. As the National College tell us: “leaders are pivotal to school improvement and make a difference to behaviour, engagement and outcomes.”

Indeed, the influence of the head teacher or principal on a school’s success has never been higher than it is today – not least because of the greater responsibilities and autonomy that head teachers and principals hold. According to the most recent annual report from Ofsted “head teachers have more opportunity than ever before to shape and plan for the future of their schools.” It follows that the importance of recruiting a high quality head teacher with the right expertise, skills and values has never been higher. There is good evidence that failure to recruit a permanent, high-quality head can lead to performance dips for schools (Day et al. 2007; HMCI 2010); and that risk is becoming an increasing reality in many contexts.

Governing bodies have a critical role here. Indeed, recruiting a head teacher is arguably the most significant responsibility a governing body will ever discharge. For some schools – particularly those in coastal and rural areas, but also faith schools and many primaries – attracting a sufficient number of high quality applications is not a straightforward task. Factors such as geography (proximity to key amenities), lack of opportunities for collaboration with other schools and leaders (perceived isolation), the perceived pressures of the job (am I required to do all of that by myself?!), and lack of an inspiring (and realistic) vision set by governors, all contribute to lower levels of applications for headship posts. Moreover, there is still a lack of awareness around what constitutes an effective and inspiring recruitment process. These issues are compromising governors’ efforts to take the most important decision for their school with the confidence it deserves.


What is the answer? Well first of all we should be clear that this is not down to a lack of leadership skills nor leadership development opportunities within the system. There are now more senior and middle leaders operating within the system than before and the opportunities for leaders’ professional development is unprecedented. Moreover, the quality of leadership has never been higher. The issue is more around attracting those high potential individuals to the job of headship. It is a question governing bodies are increasingly grappling with.

How is this achieved? Well aside from ensuring a long term pipeline of talent within the school or network of schools, this is about developing a well-planned process for recruitment that is based on an inspiring (yet manageable!) vision for your school and the role of the new head teacher in taking that forward. It may mean going back to the drawing board on the vision for leadership within a school – and what better time to do so? Governing bodies, following the resignation of the former head, could take the opportunity to review the model for senior leadership of the school. For example, the governors might want consider new models of school leadership ranging from entering a federation or a multi-academy trust, through to becoming a co-operative trust, or remaining a standalone school or academy. They may also wish to refine the overall strategic vision for the school, responding to issues and priorities highlighted by Ofsted, peer review or through consultation with parents and the local community. All of this will feed into a clearer idea of the type of person best placed to lead the school during its next phase.

As such, careful consideration of these options is often an important first step towards attracting the right candidate to your school. Clarity of vision (and mission) matters, as do issues such as access to wider networks of peer support, professional development opportunities, expert support, and opportunities to influence wider school improvement – all of which will be a key consideration for a high quality prospective head teacher. It is a competitive market for high quality heads and an increasing number of schools are able to provide this attractive balance of support and opportunity through membership of federations, academy trusts and teaching school alliances.

Ensuring that the job responds to the wider non-professional needs of top candidates is another key issue. The fact that ‘generation y’ are looking for work / life balance was highlighted by Hay Group some years ago: “If we recruit younger leaders, or leaders from more diverse backgrounds, we will be seeking people with different expectations of work. Younger leaders, coupled with the tendency of professionals to have children later in life, means, for example, that more leaders will have caring responsibilities outside work.Considering issues such as these can make or break a recruitment process.

Clarifying your vision for the school and for the role of head / principal should ideally be done in collaboration with experts who will take your recruitment campaign forward from inception to completion – ensuring a process that reflects the high standards that you and your school expect from prospective candidates. Drawing on expert support – which brings together experience and current research and best practice – is essential at this stage. From developing inspiring and high quality communications such as adverts, application packs and pre-interview meetings that capture your vision and maximise the attractiveness of the role, to drawing on expert HR advice in developing the process, an effective recruitment campaign depends on the quality of advice provided to a governing body at this early stage. In some cases this expertise may reside within the governing body itself, but external support and challenge goes a long way to getting this right. It is easy to lose sight of some key considerations, including but not limited to:

Research & planning

Any recruitment campaign and process depends on a clear understanding of the context of both the school and school leadership recruitment generally. What are the challenges that schools like yours tend to face and do you have a strategy for addressing or managing these before the process begins? Are you aware of the latest head teacher standards and does the job description reflect these? ( ) Are you clear about the expectations of a new generation of school leaders and does the vision for the school and the role respond to these sufficiently so as to attract the highest quality candidates?

External help from an education consultancy can pay dividends here – particularly if the organisation is able to draw on high quality HR expertise alongside a deep understanding of the current educational landscape. This foundation of research, analysis and bespoke advice can provide the basis for an exceptionally well planned recruitment process and can allow you to address the key issues before the campaign for a new head begins in earnest!


Timing is essential to your recruitment campaign. More than half of headship vacancies are advertised between January and March. Summer term recruitment rounds are unlikely to result in recruitment by the start of a new academic year the following September. The average length of a head teacher recruitment process can be anywhere between 90 and 150 days.


Is the vision for your school and the role of head teacher sufficiently clear and inspiring? Are you articulating what is great about your school, children and local community and the potential difference that the role will make to the lives of so many? Are you clear about the opportunities for ongoing professional development (such as membership of a Teaching School Alliance or peer review partnership) and support available from others (central support from a multi-academy trust or federation)? Is your governing body committed to this and does the governing body itself have expertise in areas such as HR or finance that may make the heads’ job that little bit more manageable? Ensuring your advertisement, application pack and other materials capture what it is that makes your school standout to exceptional heads and prospective heads can make the difference between a powerful recruitment campaign and one that gets lost amongst the other adverts. Celebrate what is great about your school and ensure the future is inspiring!

A process that demonstrates high standards

Put simply, an effective recruitment process will deliver a quality candidate with the skills and attributes to succeed. Whilst ultimately the search and selection for this one person is the goal, the wider achievement will be in creating a robust and objective process that engages with candidates; creating a positive experience and perception of the school for all.

Designing the assessment process to align with the school’s vision for the future is key, appropriate psychometrics should be selected to provide valid and clear predictors of performance potential alongside the observation and interview process. Qualified HR practitioners should be utilised to design and assess the process alongside the governing body and leadership team.

At each stage of the process rigorous and consistent screening against clear role criteria and competencies (behaviours) will provide evidenced-based decisions and offer effective and meaningful feedback. Involving children can ensure governors receive an essential perspective on each candidate. How does the candidate connect with children and does the candidate demonstrate an ability to inspire enthusiasm amongst pupils? It’s also important to give children a sense of some ownership of the process – ultimately – it is their school and their learning will be central to the school’s vision for the future. No process could be complete without their involvement in some way!

Value for money

The impact of the wrong decision within this context is clear and it is why governors should actively seek out the very best advice and support as a priority. Investing in high quality marketing, research and processes, such as psychometric testing, alongside other aspects of the recruitment process is very likely to improve the reliability of the recruitment decision.

If you would like Forum Education and our HR partners, TargetHRDelivery, to present to your governing body on recruitment issues and/or provide specific consultancy support, please contact us at:





“Forum Education supported REAch2 on a project to enhance & better co-ordinate our approach to recruiting school leaders and teachers. Recruiting high quality leaders and teachers – from Executive Principals to classroom assistants – is an essential basis for school improvement. From undertaking research to help us understand how high performing education systems recruit, through to drafting inspiring and values-driven recruitment adverts and application packs, Forum Education provided an excellent service to the trust.”


Cathie Paine, Deputy CEO, REAch2 Academy Trust


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