Recruitment for most employers is straightforward: you advertise, read through applications, invite the people you like in for an interview, think about it for a bit and then enter into negotiations with whoever you most want to employ. In education it’s different. Schools are weird. When I was first told how school recruitment works on my PGCE I couldn’t believe it, “They do what?”

For any non teachers, school recruitment works like this:

  • All candidates for the job are invited in to the school on the same day.
  • Candidates have to plan a lesson for a class they know almost nothing about beyond year group and ability.
  • The interview day typically consists of a tour of the school, being observed teaching a lesson, being interviewed by students, with a final formal interview.
  • The last interview question is always, “If you were offered the job would you accept it?”
  • The interviewing panel discuss who they want to appoint and, later the same day, contact the successful candidate who has to make an immediate decision.

I’m not sure when this became standard practice, but precious few schools in the UK  deviate from this approach.  As such, it’s worth asking whether this is a system supported by research as the best way to recruit staff.  As you might expect, it turns out that some of what schools do is for reasons of misguided expediency, some habit and, some based on evidence of what’s effective practice. First, I’ll briefly review the evidence that’s out there and then I’ll make a few suggestions for improving what we currently do.

Firstly, standardised application forms are, in the main a good idea, although there are a few pitfalls to be aware of. Ideally, you should have a way of comparing candidates’ qualification and employment history without being influenced by their personal details. I’m sure there are snazzy hi-tech ways to accomplish this but simply having the first page contain contact information so that it can be easily removed is a simple low-tech solution. Some sort of comparative judgement model with multiple evaluators will help to reduce unwanted biases. (Bohnet et al 2015)

Exam grades provide useful proxies both for intelligence and for motivation. If a candidate has a hatful of A grades this lets you know that as well as being clever, they probably work hard. These are both traits you should select for. There’s decades of research which suggests that IQ is important predictive power in determining whether a prospective employee is likely to work out. A high IQ not only gives you good information on a candidate’s ability to do a challenging job, it also predicts how conscientious they’re likely to be.

According to Kuncel & Hezlett, there are pretty strong correlations with performing in jobs designated as ‘high complexity’ and ‘medium complexity’ and intelligence even makes a difference when the job is relatively straightforward. IQ even shows correlations with leadership and creativity indicating that, on average, cleverer people will have more ideas and be better at getting others to implement them.

What’s probably pointless as far as application forms go is the personal statement. All this tells you is whether someone (not necessarily the applicant) was able to guess right as to what you wanted to hear. If you’re genuinely interested in appointing the best candidate you would probably be best to conduct an IQ test.

So, although application forms are, for the most part, worthwhile, there’s no evidence that unstructured interviews lead to better decisions and fairly weak evidence that even structured interviews will help us overcome our biases unless we’re very careful about the structures we put in place. This paper does a good job of showing that interviewers make better decision by just looking at applications rather than having their opinions influenced by interviews. The problem is that interviews generate too much information for us to properly evaluate. Because of this we are forced to rely on tacit decision making in which we often ignore important information and are influenced by irrelevancies such as how similar the candidate is to us. This is called sense making – the process whereby we give meaning to our experiences. If we hear irrelevancies or inconsistencies, we’re wired to try to make sense out of them and we will often arrive at a mental accommodation which feels satisfying even though, objectively, it shouldn’t be. This also leads to interviewers firmly believing in their powers of intuition and decision making acuity even when this is disputed by empirical evidence.

Despite these findings, interviews remain wildly popular – probably because they’re both convenient and a good way of assessing pertinent skills such as clear explanation and careful listening. Knowing that interviews should be as structured as possible is probably good news for most schools as, in my experience, interviewing panels go to some trouble to make sure each candidate is asked the same question in the same order. There is though more we can do than just this. Opinion is divided on the subject of what’s the best way to phrases questions – there’s evidence in support of the ‘tell us about a time when you…’ model as well as the ‘what would you do if…’ model – whatever you like most is probably good enough. The top tips for structured interviews are to commit to a series of questions you will ask each candidate, and make sure all questions are directly relevant to the job. Daniel Kahneman offers some useful suggestions in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

If you are serious about hiring the best possible person for the job, this is what you should do. First, select a few traits that are prerequisites for success in this position (technical proficiency, engaging personality, reliability, and so on). Don’t over do it – six dimensions is a good number. The traits you choose should be as independent as possible from each other, and you should feel that you can assess them reliably by asking a few factual questions. Next, make a list of the those questions for each trait and think about how you will score it, say on a 1 – 5 scale. You should have an idea of what you will call ‘very weak’ or ‘very strong’. (p. 232)

He offers one final piece of advice: “Firmly resolve that you will hire the candidate whose final score is the highest, even if there is another one whom you like better – try to resist your wish … to change the rankings.”

Once the interviews have been conducted, it’s important to get some fresh eyes involved. Ideally, a second set of independent evaluators would compare the candidates’ responses and offer an unbiased suggestion on which were best. Not only will anyone who wasn’t actually in the interview see things we might have missed, they’ll also avoid being distracted by irrelevancies.

So much for general advice, what about for schools in particular? The first thing we need to think carefully about is the interview lesson. Although we know that there is no reliable way to grade lessons, we still want to have some idea of how a prospective teacher is likely to perform in the classroom. The worst way to use a sample lesson in an interview is to send candidates a loose brief and expect them to guess what type of teaching you like. This not only creates undue stress and hours of pointless work, it also results in a performance which is unlikely to tell you much you couldn’t have found out in other ways. My advice is to send candidates a lesson plan you would like them to teach. Not only does this cut down on their preparation, they’re no longer having to guess about what you want to see. The benefit for the employer is that you get to see whether the candidate can adapt to fit your expectations. I think it’s helpful to debrief the lesson at some point, but the emphasis on this should not be to offer feedback – any such feedback in a highly artificial setting will serve no practical purpose – instead it should focus on what the candidate might have done differently and how they think the lesson might be improved.

I began writing this post with the idea that the interview day might not be a good idea, but, having reviewed the evidence (especially this document) I’ve concluded that having all the applicants in on the same day is probably the best way to reduce bias in appointing the best person. What I definitely would change is forcing everyone to make a snap decision. Instead, I would suggest announcing in advance that a decision will be made in, say, a week’s time. This will give time for both parties to really think things over and be sure that the right person gets the right job. I realise there are pressures which might prevent us from doing this – there’s often a fear that if we don’t snap someone up they may be lured away by another school – but we should, where possible seek to reduce the pressure on an immediate decision.

I’d also get rid of the walk of shame; the midday cut where the field is culled and those candidates we’ve taken against are sent packing. This practice is not just humiliating, it’s a poor way to combat bias and appoint the best person. Everyone who you decided was worth meeting on the basis of their application form should receive the same treatment and all go through the same process, most especially the structured interview.

Here then are my top tips:

  1. Anonymise application forms and have at least two assessors comparing applications to arrive at a rank order of best to worst applicants.
  2. Give all the applicants at the top of your rank order an IQ test. (This is probably impractical because of time and expenses but it is the Rolls Royce solution to recruitment.)
  3. Give prospective teachers a lesson plan you want them to teach and allow them an opportunity to reflect on how it went.
  4. Design an interview format around no more than six qualities or attributes and come up with a short list of questions for each attribute. Then score each interview on a scale of 1-5 for each of the metrics you’ve come up with.
  5. Allow time to make the best decision. Ideally you want to score the application form, IQ test, lesson observation and the interview questions and this shouldn’t be rushed.

In Part 2 I give particular attention to the formal interview and provide a template for effective interviewing, then, in Part 3, I discuss how we can improve interview lessons.