Professor Richard Kerley: Education - Reformed or Deformed?

Part 1 of a blog by CSPP Chair, Professor Richard Kerley on the Scottish Government’s proposed education reform. This part examines the notion that headteachers should be given a greater role over staff appointments.


As the debate about education ‘reform‘ rolls on, I have been giving some thought to some of the features of the package Mr Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, is trying to introduce.

Of course, just because he has proposed these changes doesn’t mean that’s where we’ll end up; there is no SNP majority in Parliament, and it is the kind of issue where the Green Party might kick over the terraces, just to show they can’t always be relied upon by a vote-hungry minority government.

The CSPP has been involved for some time in collaborating with Reform Scotland through the Commission on School Reform. So we welcomed some of the proposals that emerged from the government. We actually welcomed them rather more than some others such as the EIS did; though to be fair organisations such as the EIS have members’ interests to be defended in any such debate.

Interestingly, the EIS have polled headteacher members’ views on some aspects of reform – ‘The Headteachers' Charter’ and the findings suggest that headteachers and depute headteachers are not all that keen on the overall basis of these suggested reforms, even though they are thought by the government to enhance the position of headteachers .

Most interestingly, given the discussion about the extension of authority/autonomy to headteachers that the government proposes, two findings from this survey standout:

‘A large number [of] headteachers responded that they were involved in appointments and a majority (71%) stated that it was important or essential to be involved in staffing decisions. The supplementary question responses also showed that a large number of the headteachers surveyed wished to maintain existing employment relationships and the use of specialist LA staff such as HR professionals.’

Leave aside for the moment the wish to retain support in staffing and current employment relationships [i.e. that teachers are employed by whichever council they work for and presumably not a specific school], what I find fascinating is that almost 30% of respondents presumably did not think it important to be involved in making teacher appointment. Think about that response for a moment. You are a woman or man who runs a school and implicitly, if you follow this line, you are happy that you have no say in any of the teachers who start at your school this coming August, in the new term. An odd reaction, to say the least from anyone who aspires to a leadership role in any organisation and it perhaps makes you wonder how rigorous their appointment process was!

Of course it may not be at all odd; as headteachers speculate on just what suggested appointment powers mean for them and what that might mean. They are right to speculate, because although we are not clear yet what form this will take, the government say it will be legislated for and it will be truly fascinating to see what form any such legislation adopts.

Over the years, in various settings, I have been involved in making appointments; I honestly can’t count, but quite a lot. I have appointed people solo; as part of a panel of colleagues; as chair of a panel; as an adviser to appointing bodies.  Some have been a great choice; some acceptable; some indifferent; and few – thankfully few – unmitigated disasters. I’ve also – as an academic -   tried researching the appointment process [of chief executives in councils and of political candidates] and it has been fiendishly difficult. Not for lack of access, but because making any appointment to any position appears to raise conceptual difficulties for many of those involved in making appointments.

So what are some of the problems of appointing people to jobs? Appointment decisions that, in the case of teachers, have historically been difficult to reverse in any way that is readily available to a headteacher who regrets the choice made some months later ……

From my experience and observation, most of us appear to enter the appointment process with the optimistic view that we’ll ultimately consider and chose from four or five men and women whom we [or others sometimes] consider the best out of the 10, 20, 100 applicants who applied for our job.

We often appear to comfortably delude ourselves that the candidates will fall into a nice ordered ranking, with the best person clearly shining out by a good length. On being offered the job that candidate will gratefully accept the job – and there is usually some dummy on the appointment panel who asks the candidates ‘.. if we offer you the job will you accept it?  Surprise, surprise …they all say ‘Yes’ and then afterward about 20% of them start to temporise.

More often what happens at the final stage of selection is that of the 5 people we see at some form of selection interview, one is a complete no-hoper; two are acceptable but not sparkling, and for the other two – it’s hard to split between them. Actually that outcome is exactly as professional bodies [the former Institute of Personnel Management, now CIPD] have reported on selection processes everywhere. In effect, between the two ‘best’ candidates, you could as well toss a coin.

I have sat in interviews where colleagues on a panel have deferred to me – as chair – or I in turn have deferred to A.N. Other in the chair and said ‘…well, you have to work with this person, so it’s your call…’.

And that kind of paradox arises in the easiest of selection choices: one job, five people; clean and clear where your choice is limited to one person for one job.

Now it strikes me that with appointments to teaching jobs, particularly in a large council with 60 primaries and 15 or so secondaries, it’s a lot tougher.

It’s tougher because teaching appointments [to judge from print display and web adverts] fall into two distinct categories: specialist appointments and commodity appointments.

I do not mean that categorisation to be dismissive -  I refer to volume – as at this time of year you can be utterly confident that most councils are looking for more Maths and English teachers then they are, say, Music teachers.

So the headteacher wanting a new Music teacher will be able to run the standard form of selection process. The schools wanting one or two Maths teachers will be, in effect, in competition with four or five other schools in their area and – depending on location and travel areas – with schools in other council areas.

That is all at a time of obvious shortage in some subjects which will likely mean that when / if, headteachers achieve ‘greater control’ over staff appointments there will be a crunch period for recruitment generally – and guess which schools in which areas will suffer?

The reality is likely to be that headteachers are not choosing teachers, but that some teachers are choosing schools …. not a great position to be in!

And of course, if you as a newly empowered head teacher have power over Hiring – you also have to assume some [possibly all the] responsibility for Firing.

More thoughts on that very hot topic in Part II.

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