Peter Shrubsall, chair of governors at Cullompton Community College in Devon shares the detail of how the governing board conducted a robust virtual interview process to successfully appoint a headteacher after lockdown made a normal process impossible.

At the end of January 2020 there was a requirement for Cullompton Community College (an 11 to 16 local authority maintained, foundation school with around 730 pupils) to recruit a new Headteacher. During the process it became clear very rapidly that, because of the extraordinary developing circumstances of the pandemic, it was not going to be possible to hold traditional face-to-face interviews. As a board we had the option to indefinitely postpone the process or to use video conferencing technology. The bold decision was made by governors to use a ‘Virtual Interview’ programme as it was crucial for our school that an appointment was made.

A risk assessment identified four major factors that would need mitigating or eliminating:

  • Candidates may not be prepared to proceed on this basis

  • The video technology would be inadequate in terms of quality and reliability

  • Video recordings could be copied and inappropriately distributed

  • That the process would not be deemed adequately robust

Normal practice is to invite shortlisted candidates to the school for discussions and assessment exercises on day one and final interviews on day two. It was quickly realised that the proposed approach could mean that some sessions could be concurrent, but it could also be spread over several days. Of course, there would be no travel time, travel expense, nor cost of accommodation. These were all very useful benefits. It did mean though, that several candidates would not have the opportunity to visit the school. People are much more comfortable having discussions face-to-face and this was not going to be possible, so there were disadvantages too.

Planning and preparation

A detailed plan of the process was prepared, as would be usual with any Headteacher recruitment. This was discussed with a representative of the local authority (LA) who were very supportive. It gave the board permission to proceed this way with one of the senior staff being a direct participant.

Through various trials and rehearsals, we chose which video technology to use, opting for a platform which would work well through the school firewall and operate irrespective of the participants operating systems. The suitability of the chosen platform (Google Meet) became key to the effectiveness of the recruitment process.

Shortlisted candidates were briefed by email of the planned procedure with an explanation of the use of video conferencing to conduct the exercises and the final interviews supplemented by telephone conversations where necessary. It was important that each candidate gave permission in advance for the sessions to be recorded and shared with other governors, the LA and another independent interviewer. Each was assured that the videos would be deleted after the procedure and they would have confirmation emails of their deletion. All participants were sent a video conference etiquette and protocol guide.

In advance of the formal discussions, each shortlisted candidate was contacted by video call by the chair to check that the video link at the candidate’s end was acceptable and for there to be an opportunity for clarification of the planned process, permissions obtained and to answer any questions the candidates had. All proved perfectly acceptable demonstrating the viability of the technology.

Rehearsals of the video sessions took place with all parties representing the school. A timetable was developed after consultation with all parties and then individual timetables were prepared and emailed to each shortlisted candidate. It was decided that, to fit in with availability of key participants, that stage one would be over two days.

Days one and two

An introduction video call to each day by the Chair of Governors to each candidate confirming the programme and that they were ready to proceed.

Topic discussions

The sessions on curriculum, inclusion and teaching and learning comprised the same prompts for all candidates – in one case led by a middle leader with a member of the SLT in support with a governor asking some of the questions; in others by a member of the SLT and governor. The discussions were limited to 30 minutes per candidate using a rota. The outcomes of each session were reported to the chair of governors and importantly, the videos and assessment notes of these sessions were also shared with the participants of the other topic sessions and the two independent consultants.

Student panel

Questions raised by a student panel (four students nominated by heads of year) were put to each candidate by a governor and the video recording of the candidate’s answers were made available to the students at home who were asked to submit a brief report of their impressions and reactions by email to the host governor who summarised the reports and submitted them to the chair of governors. Safeguarding procedures were tightly followed for this step and parent’s permission obtained.

Finance and data exercises

A mock budget was prepared by the school business manager, and a data set produced, both of which were emailed to each candidate at specific times. They had 30 minutes to reply with their observations, questions they would ask and actions they would initiate. Their responses were analysed by a governor and the chair of governors, and in the case of the finance exercise, the business manager.

Video presentation

Each candidate was asked to prepare a 10-minute presentation to be given as though they were speaking to the whole school staff. This was hosted and recorded by the chair of governors. Candidates were free to choose what they wanted to say as they would have done if they had been presenting in an assembly. It was then shared with staff who were asked to respond on a Google form commenting upon their preferred candidate; positive comments only were requested. The analysis of their comments became part of the decision-making process.

At the end of the two days, each candidate was video called by the chair of governors to ensure that it had all been satisfactory from their viewpoint, to raise any questions or make any points about the sessions and to advise them what would happen next and when they might expect to hear from the school. All were content.

Day three

Based on the reports of the previous two day’s activities and the sharing of the videos, a panel was convened by video conference to decide who would go forward to the final interview. Once the decision was made, all candidates were then contacted by telephone to advise them who would go forward and who would not.

Days four and five

It was decided that one final interview would be done per day and the decision meeting would be held the day after. Video conferences were set up with each candidate for final interviews and would include the two independent consultants, the chair of governors and two other governors in support. Ideally there should be five governors but to keep the numbers involved in the video conference down, two other governors were given access to the video recordings. The recordings of both interviews were also made available to the LA’s Director of Education for comment as part of the final decision making. This proved particularly useful as they could be viewed at a time to suit the director.

A video conference of the interviewers and the two extra governors was convened and, using all the assessments from all the sessions, a decision was made to appoint the new Headteacher for the school and both candidates were contacted accordingly.

Conclusions

The use of video conferencing technology is perfectly viable for the recruitment of senior staff in a school environment. It can provide a sound, robust procedure, and the benefits of spreading out the programme over several days and the ability to share recordings means a greater number of people can be involved. The disadvantages of not meeting people face to face, nor having them visit the school are outweighed by the greater flexibility to participating governors, many of which have to fit in their professional lives, and some valuable cost savings. In these constrained circumstances, the use of modern, and ever improving video conferencing technology has enabled Cullompton Community College to conduct a robust and transparent process to appoint its new Headteacher.

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