Courting your leadership candidates

So you have a Senior Leadership vacancy and now you’re wondering how you are going to fill it in these times where the statistics tell us that this will become an increasingly difficult challenge:

  • There are currently c.25,000 schools – and growing.
  • There is a recruitment and retention issue in all UK schools to some extent. The NCSL review of the school leadership landscape (Earley et al, 2012) showed that around a third of all Headteachers are aged 55+, and it is known that 50% of all 55 year old Headteachers will go on to take early retirement over the following 4 years. Moreover the same report shows that a combination of demographic pressures and a declining pool of middle leaders attracted to headship means that there is not always an obvious pipeline of leaders to replace this cohort. This is compounded by an apparent blockage at deputy head level – the number of such posts have reduced and there is little turnover as deputy leaders rule themselves out of aspiring to headship since schools have become that much more complex to lead and manage with workload and accountability pressures.
  • At teacher level, the number of entrants to training has fallen by 17% since 2009 and was 7% below requirement this academic year (Ofsted annual report 2013/14), against a backdrop of increasing pupil numbers – around 900,000 extra anticipated by 2023 nationwide (DfE, 2014, National Pupil projections: trends in pupil numbers).
  • There is a key problem of attrition too amongst qualified teachers and still a predominantly female workforce (88% of 30-39 year olds teachers were female in primary and 64% at secondary level) also being affected by maternity absence etc. This means that almost all geographical regions are reporting difficulty in attracting a good field of candidates for teaching posts, even more so with known shortage subjects like English and STEM.
  • As recently reported in the news, the Government is determined that failing schools will be quickly moved towards Academy status and senior leadership changes will be inevitable.

Hence, all areas are having to give attention to more strategic, innovative and long-term approaches to the recruitment and retention of staff.

Since the market for quality candidates is becoming increasingly competitive, and given the time and energy most schools are having to devote to the recruitment of key personnel it is more important than ever to ensure your offer is attractive.  This is NOT about the salary necessarily: good candidates really need to be sold your vacancy and your organisation and to feel wanted, not just in the first stages of the process but throughout the entire process.  They are, after all, an increasingly rare resource and as such, want to feel any application they submit will be valued and nurtured – you need to flirt a little and COURT YOUR CANDIDATES.

As recruiters of senior leaders, there are a number of things we have learned about just what it takes to find the ideal leader to the specification we have been given – that’s almost the easy part. More of a challenge is how to gain their interest in the first instance, nurture that interest and take them through the process in a way that emanates professionalism and gives them a real sense of being special. This may seem more akin to a courtship than a recruitment process, but if you want to get them on that first ‘date’, the interview, then this is exactly what is required.  After all, there are plenty of suitors – your counterparts in other schools. So how do you secure your ideal match in education?


What makes you attractive to them? – be absolutely clear about what you are offering and the sort of person you need before taking any action and definitely before committing anything to print – you can’t go back on what you’ve said without looking unprofessional.

Think about what is good, and not so good about your school, job, area etc. – a challenge can attract someone just as much as the benefits and its important this information is available at the start to avoid any surprises.

First contact – needs to be impressive, honest and interesting. Be specific about the role and its responsibilities, clear about your schools requirements, sell the benefits of working for your school or educational establishment but don’t ‘flower it up’ so that it is unrealistic, your candidate will soon spot the fantasy from the fiction. If you are inviting school visits, make sure whoever is conducting the tour, understands the importance of the impression they make. We all have imperfections which if you ever get into a close relationship will come to light at some point, so you may as well own up to them now, your honesty is more likely to be admired than admonished.

Think, too about making the application process as easy and quick as possible. After all, the best candidates are busy people and sometimes, a hard to manipulate application form and long statements just can’t be fitted into a busy schedule; the simple sending of a CV can, and can let both parties know if it’s worth putting in the effort of a full application.

Playing the field – so, all being well, you have a good field of candidates and now you need to select whom to invite to the first interview. For those not selected, it’s really important you let them down gently and respectfully, after all, they may not be the person for you right now but they could be a prospect for the future in your current school or perhaps even, one you may move to later in your career. Wherever possible,  provide constructive feedback to candidates why their application was unsuccessful – done properly, this can be extremely useful for someone to understand what they need to do to improve their chances next time and they will remember and appreciate the effort you made.

First date – For those candidates who have successfully made it to the first interviews, let them know this as quickly as possible; time is of the essence in the recruitment process and be under no illusion, in this case there are not plenty of fish in the sea and they will easily slip through your fingers and be snapped up elsewhere if you don’t move quickly.

Confirm verbally (another opportunity for you to get to know each other a little better) and e-mail, the date, time and activities for the interview day and be sure to plan the time and activities carefully, understanding exactly what you want to achieve from each one. Ensure all candidates are clear about what happens at the end of the first interviews and any time-scales involved. More radically, some organisations are questioning whether the traditional day 1 carousel of activities is necessary. Certainly at a leadership level, does this really reveal anything that won’t come up at a full interview and thorough referencing process? The more you can do to respect your candidates’ intelligence and experience, the more attractive you will seem.

Interviews are a 2 way process and as much about the candidate assessing if they want to work for your school as it is for you to assess if you want them to work for you – good impressions on both sides are imperative throughout the whole process. We do find that some formal panels are so focussed on making candidates jump through hoops as a filter that they lose sight of the fact that they also need to be impressing the candidates. For a successful marriage, BOTH parties need to fall in love first.

Candidates unsuccessful in making it to the 2nd round, need to be informed as quickly as possible and there really is no excuse for not giving feedback as to why they didn’t make it to the final stages when you get to this point:  they have put in a lot of effort and given up a day of their valuable time for you.

The same applies for 2nd round interviews as for the first, inform candidates quickly and be precise about what is expected.

Second date – if you want to enter into an engagement, then this is when the decisions will be made so make sure this 2nd interview goes to plan and there is nothing to put your candidates off you.

Whatever decision is made at a final stage interview, good communication is vital to maintain interest and avoid disappointment and disillusionment – even if a candidate doesn’t get a proposal, they should always be able to feel there has been a positive aspect to the process.

The Proposal – You’ve found your perfect match and you want them to accept your offer so make sure it’s fast – no dawdling now – another proposal may be just a phone call away! Offer verbally first, then put it in writing. If there are any negotiations, deal with them swiftly and be prepared to  be a little flexible. After all, most marriages involve compromise!

The Acceptance – so your offer is accepted – the date is confirmed and preparations for sealing this marriage are underway  – don’t throw in any curveballs – remember, relationships can end just as quickly as they started……


Colleen Bower is Educate’s Recruitment Director. She can be contacted on 020 3422 6500 or on