Headteacher recruitment: what to do if it's not going well

Recruiting a headteacher is difficult, time-consuming, and it isn't always successful despite your best efforts. Here's some advice on how to start over if it's not going well and you can't turn it around.

Last reviewed on 31 March 2022
School types: AllSchool phases: AllRef: 34733
  1. It's tough out there 
  2. Keep the school running smoothly while you search
  3. Tweak the advertising
  4. Sweeten the recruitment package
  5. Reconsider candidate selection
  6. Overhaul the interview process
  7. Ask the hard questions

It's tough out there 

We've all seen the headlines. In this environment, recruiting a headteacher might seem impossible. If you've already gone out once and it hasn't gone well, you might well lose faith. You're not alone. 

Maybe you didn't get the right candidates. Maybe you didn't get enough candidates. It's even possible you didn't get any candidates. 

It's time to go again. But first, you need to get some things in order. 

We wrote this article with the help of Jane Edminson, Brendan Hollyer and Steve Ward, 3 of our associate education experts.

Keep the school running smoothly while you search

Maybe you hoped to have a replacement before your current headteacher leaves, maybe you have a deputy acting up at the moment. If it now looks as if this could go on indefinitely, here are some provisions you can make.

Can you phase out the current headteacher?

If your current headteacher is retiring rather than moving on to another role, consider asking them to phase out slowly. This offers the greatest stability.

For example, perhaps the current head could drop down to 2 or 3 days a week or work half-days while you search for their replacement. 

Can the deputy head act up?

A deputy head can and should act up during the search for a headteacher, but that doesn't mean they're expected to fulfil the role indefinitely.

The natural expectation is that the deputy head will act up or even replace the head when there's a vacancy. However, it's possible this isn't what the deputy wants or can effectively do. 

Have a frank conversation with your deputy head about what they want and about what your expectations are.

If you decide together that it's appropriate for them to act up for longer than a term or two, then make sure you provide adequate support.  For example, if they've never prepared the headteacher's report to governors before, give them plenty of time and assistance putting it together as the report is even more vital right now.

Don't forget that your school is in flux, and being a headteacher is difficult in the best of circumstances.

If you're in a MAT can you get support from within the trust?

One of the benefits of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is having a leadership structure in place that might let you borrow leadership from another school for a period of time. 

Have you turned to your local authority (maintained schools and single academies)?

Don't forget that the local authority (LA) still has responsibility to ensure the education of all pupils in its constituency. Turn to them to help you find someone from a teaching school or a national leader of education (NLE). 

Making sure you have someone in place that can give you the time to recruit the right candidate is a priority. For more help in appointing an acting headteacher, read this article.

Tweak the advertising

Now that you have some breathing space, here are some things you can do differently in round 2.

The first place to look is your advertising. 

Wrong advert

Instead of running a typical advert requiring candidates to impress you, which can make job-hunting daunting and disheartening, run a job advert that will impress applicants and encourage them to apply. 

Be reflective. Instead of describing what the ideal candidate will look like, ask yourself what you want the ideal candidate to find:

  • Who are you and why's your school a great place to work?
  • What's your vision and what's the new headteacher's role in fulfilling that vision?
  • What great things has Ofsted said about you that you can share?
  • Does your advert use collaborative language, like 'together we will' and 'working in partnership'?
  • What's so great about where you live and why do you live there? 

Give applicants a chance to see themselves in your context and feel excited about the opportunity. Highlight the effectiveness of your governance. Or if you're in transition, explain how the incoming headteacher will be pivotal in making a positive change. 

Right advert, wrong place

Sometimes the problem is less with what you said and more with where you said it. Successful advertising isn't passive. It needs consideration and research. To start off:

  • If we've advertised locally, should we advertise further afield?
  • If we've advertised nationally, have we overlooked candidates closer to home?
  • Have we taken advantage of our LA for advertising?
  • Have we used our network effectively?

Some new ideas for where you might want to advertise:

  • Some LAs have created campaigns specifically for schools in their areas. For example, Teach Northamptonshire has a job board, information on teacher training and local area highlights. Check if you have a similar resource
  • Go directly to a National Professional Qualification for Headship provider. Many offer career services and would be happy to let their alumni network know about your opportunity

Right place, wrong time

Plan your advertising to run well in advance of notice periods and resignation deadlines, as this'll be the time that headteachers who are considering a move will be looking.

All maintained schools and most academies follow the Burgundy Book which sets out statutory notice periods and resignation deadlines for teachers - make sure you know what these are.

Anecdotally, the best time to advertise is the second half of the spring term, but you'll get the most exposure around any of the notice deadlines.

Sweeten the recruitment package

After advertising, the next thing to consider is your package:

  • Is our salary in line with the level of responsibility we're asking for? Read this article for information on determining headteacher pay
  • If it's not, can we either offer more money or lower our expectations?
  • Do we think our benefits package is competitive? 
  • If we're having to cast a wide net in this search, can we cover or at least off-set the cost of a move?

Obviously, offering more money can help, but that's not always an option. Instead, here are some creative things you could use to sweeten the offer:

  • CPD - but not your standard offer. Recognise that your next headteacher's career path might not end at your door. Offer support for real career development, like supporting them to become an Ofsted inspector or a school improvement adviser
  • Flexible working - can they work from home one day a week? Maybe job-share?
  • Work/life balance - saying that you value it isn't enough, make a compelling offer. Say that you want to talk about it and discuss what that balance looks like with the candidate
  • Children of staff - if your admissions policy allows you to prioritise children of staff, say it. If it doesn't, consider whether it should. Being able to work around their children's schedules is one of the reasons people go into teaching in the first place

Say up front that you want to personalise the benefits package to the individual. It'll demonstrate your collaborative nature and also mean you don't spend money on things your future headteacher doesn't want or need. 

Reconsider candidate selection

If you came out of the first round with some candidates, but none that you wanted to bring to interview: STOP. Think again. Before you instantly dismiss any candidate, consider the following:

  • Be brutally honest, were you asking for more experience/education/credentials than you can afford?
  • Is your person specification realistic? 
  • Can you genuinely afford your current level of selectivity?

Some things to bear in mind

Headteacher candidates are self-selecting - give them a chance. You may not see the right stuff in their application, but they saw enough of themselves in the role to go through the lengthy and often arduous process of applying. They wouldn't apply if they honestly thought doing so would be a waste of their time or yours. Hear them out.

Don't use an impossible person specification. Obviously it's good to have a clear idea of what the non-negotiables are, but your description of a perfect headteacher might not be realistic. For example, studies have shown that women are less likely than men to put themselves up for a promotion unless they match 100% of the qualifications. Make sure you're not eliminating potential candidates with an impossible person specification.

Use our resources

Use our model headteacher job description and person specification.

For help with short-listing, read this.

Overhaul the interview process

Some boards approach interviews in corporate fashion, when the role of headteacher is anything but corporate. If your current interview process involves a candidate in a single chair facing a panel of grim interrogators then it's time to rethink. 

Make the interview panel less formal, more conversational

Do away with the interrogation format and keep the panel on the smaller side. That said, your panel should include:

  • The chair of governors: this is going to be an important relationship, and any headteacher candidate needs to get a sense of that relationship from the beginning
  • An academic adviser: if you're using one

If you have a great parent governor, consider asking them to be on the panel as well. This'll give your candidate a chance to meet someone from the parent body and the parent governor has useful insight into how a prospective headteacher would be viewed by parents. 

Read our article on headteacher selection panels for information on who's eligible.

Get pupils involved

Consider letting candidates meet pupils in an informal setting. In fact, create a pupil selection panel that's also involved in the recruitment process. It demonstrates the collaborative nature of your school and gives your future headteacher an opportunity to meet the people they'll spend most of their time with once they join you.

Ask the hard questions

It's possible that you'll continue struggling to find a suitable candidate. Faced with this here are the hard questions you have to wrestle with:

  • Has recruitment been getting progressively more difficult at our school?
  • Is this a trend with other schools in the area? Have they been able to get around it?
  • Is the local population on a downward trend?
  • Does our school size mean the job of a headteacher isn't viable?

If you're struggling to recruit due to factors you can't control, then it's time to get real. These aren't going to get better over time. It's time to think differently about the leadership structure in your school:

  • Are there nearby schools we can federate with? Hard or soft, forming a federation with schools has the advantage of sharing resources. The truth is that smaller schools can't afford full-time headteachers anymore, and a federation can hire a permanent executive head
  • Have we considered the advantages of joining a MAT? There are pros and cons, but one of the benefits of forming or joining a MAT is having a permanent leadership structure overhead that can provide cover
  • Can we share the cost of a headteacher with other schools? If your school is too small to afford a suitably qualified headteacher, other schools in your area might be in the same situation. A recent study from the DfE on running rural schools efficiently discovered that these arrangements allowed small schools to remain viable


Brendan Hollyer is the chair of governors at 2 primary academies. He's also a trustee at another MAT which covers all phases of primary and secondary education. He's a former national leader of governance (NLG) and is a founding member of Independent Governor Services (IGovS). Formerly, Brendan worked as the director of conversions and governance for a multi-academy trust.

Steve Ward is a national leader of governance advocate. He chairs a multi-academy trust board and a local governing body, and is also a trustee and member at a secondary academy.

Jane Edminson is a national leader of governance and a governor support officer for a local authority.

What did you think?

Rate this

Why did you give this rating?

Your feedback helps us to ensure our content is helpful to all members.

Our researchers read every comment.

Can't find what you need? Try searching, or .

The Key has taken great care in publishing this article. However, some of the article's content and information may come from or link to third party sources whose quality, relevance, accuracy, completeness, currency and reliability we do not guarantee. Accordingly, we will not be held liable for any use of or reliance placed on this article's content or the links or downloads it provides. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.