Picking people

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Macbeth may be a peculiar starting point for a piece on picking the right people, but having seen the National’s latest (Anne-Marie Duff and Roy Kinnear) and being reminded of the nightmare vision of what happens when you make some wrong decisions in personnel, it is fresh in my mind.

In that little played parlour game when you imagine a school as run by a Shakespearean character, Headmaster Duncan isn’t doing so well,  although he realises “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”  he dies as a result of a bad choice: his most recent appointment to Cawdor House (previously Glamis) has, in breach of more than Health and Safety policy, done him in and now it’s Headmaster Macbeth (nickname, Mac the Knife, motto Dirk of Each for Weal of All).  Macbeth is, like the previous Earl of Cawdor, “a gentleman on whom I [Duncan] built / An absolute trust”; and he is very much The Boss.

As outlined elsewhere in this week’s Saturday Bulletin, there have been a series of appointments recently.  I am directly responsible for all of these except the Dunhurst deputy head, in which I was closely involved in the final stage interview.  Unusually, they cover the full 3-18 age range; unusually I will not be around to see how they prosper, as I am sure they will.

Heads need to be good at picking people: if you aren’t – or don’t become so quickly – things will go awry.  As in so many areas, I have learnt a lot from my Bedales experience.  So what are those lessons?

Involve plenty of other teachers, but remember it is your responsibility: pick a winner and all will celebrate; pick a loser and the fact that it is your choice will rest with you, so listen to others but remember to trust your own instincts as well.  See them in action: their craft is teaching and communicating with young people, not being plausible at interview.  Have them walk around the school with different people – watch how they react to different, sometimes surprising situations – a flock of sheep crossing the Orchard, for example.  Devote all the time and resources you need to the process: get it wrong and it takes much longer to unravel and your pupils’ progress suffers.  If you have any sinking feeling at all, don’t pick anyone – go round again.

Remember that they need to combine a passion for what they do or are applying to do (whether Art, housestaffing, headship or deputy headship) with sufficient nous, method and craft to make their ideas a reality.   Avoid Peter Pans or people with some preconceived sense that they can come to our schools to indulge their whims and wear a particularly outrageous pink corduroy suit, for example (true story…).

Apply the tests: would I like my own child to be taught / congratulated / looked after / told off by this person?  What would I feel like after half an hour’s train journey in their company?  Are they going to make people feel more or less cheerful after a chance encounter in school?  This is sometimes known as the radiator/drain test.  Will they light fires in young hearts?  Will they still be cheerful in their own way at the end of a 12 hour day?

Enough! Now evaluate the respective benefits of Headmaster Prospero, Headmistress Cleopatra, Headmaster Caesar or Principal Lear’s Academy for Young Ladies.