“It’s recruitment Jim, but not (quite) as we know it”

An HR specialist from the NHS was recently telling me of a conversation with one of the senior nurses in her hospital who was trying to recruit new staff. “I’m so bored of panels and presentations,” muttered the nurse, “it’s not like the new nurse ever has to make a presentation in the job anyway.” My HR friend suggested inviting the candidates into a ward and letting the patients ask the questions. “Gosh, can you do that – it would be perfect” enthused the nurse and headed off to make it happen.  My HR friend was surprise her colleague hadn’t thought of it before, but when you are in a large organisation driven by embedded processes and procedures it can be hard to kick over the traces.

Shortly after this conversation I was part of a recruitment panel at a primary school.  It’s a fairly small school – 150 children – and currently has 5 teachers. One is leaving and numbers are going up so they need two new teachers. The initial job advert went into the appropriate trade press during the Easter holidays and, in addition to the usual questions, we specifically asked applicants to write a letter discussing what they perceived to be the key issues facing our school.

We got 35 applications which was easy to whittle down to 13. Easy because of the number that hadn’t included a letter at all; or didn’t lay it out like a letter; that couldn’t spell or write grammatically correct English. A few had attached an essay (which didn’t mention the school at all, obvs. borrowed from course work!). Several went on, and on…. and on. I’m not sure anyone has ever successfully bored 5 year olds into learning and the approach didn’t endear itself to us.

The short listed candidates were all invited for an informal visit to the school to see round and meet the staff. On the day it seemed a bit chaotic with people popping in and out of classrooms and wittering governors trying to make sure everyone had lots of visits. The children were unperturbed. After they had all gone everyone got together to eat biscuits and share their observations. Usually this would be a quick step prior the head teacher deciding who to short-listing, observing them teach, and having a formal interview – a process which can take several weeks.  But the meeting turned into a much lengthier session as information gathered individually by the group started rolling in.  Effectively the group seemed to have gathered all the information a more formal process would have examined – curriculum knowledge, subject preferences and understanding, previous experience and classroom strategies had all been covered.  But much more importantly the candidates’ personalities had been observed – and judged. Individual observations – like the class teacher annoyed by a candidate that bossily told children to put their chairs away or the class room assistant that spotted the candidate that gently helped a child colour in the tricky bit of the frog life-cycle – were pooled. First impressions were discussed: the candidate in wishy-washy colours with the damp handshake; the one with terrible teeth (not because they were higgledy piggledy, we are British after all, but because they were dirty). The group were generous in wondering if candidates’ behaviour had been a consequence of nerves or anxiety – trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. By the end of the discussion there were 2 clear front runners and a decision was taken to see them teach as soon as possible.  The objective of a formal interview then would be more for the candidates to ask questions.

The following day the head-teacher asked the children what they had thought of the candidates that had come round: the same two names came out top (apart from one wee girl who was of the opinion that the best person to teach her would have been “The Viv Governor” – so I’m dead chuffed!!).

The point of this story is to illustrate all those things that recruitment specialists are always banging on about in action. It matters that people do what they are asked to in the job advert; it matters that presentation is clear, spelt correctly and concise; it matters what you wear and how you present yourself; it matters that you behave in a way that is true to yourself; and it matters that you know what you are talking about.  The other aspect is that, having ensured that the recruitment criteria are non-discriminatory in the first place, a group of future “co-workers” (as Americans call colleagues – but the term does somehow encompass a wider range of people) are pretty quick and effective at selecting who they would like to work with. Now we just have to hope that the two lovely candidates want to work with us…

Come over to My House

Come over to My ouse

“Come over to My House” in the Dr Seuss series was one of my favourite books as a child. It showed all sorts of houses and homes. Some people lived on stilts, some bathed in wooden tubs, some lived in wide houses, and thin houses (some so thin you could hardly get in!). Everyone was smiley and welcoming – and they all seemed to understand English. I lived abroad and so I knew that lots of people didn’t understand a word my family said – and we didn’t really understand them.  Watching news reports from around the world now, however, I am increasingly in awe of the quality of spoken English. Whether the journalist is interviewing someone on the Jordanian/Syrian border or in Cairo or in the middle of an industrial city in Germany it is remarkable how fluent and articulate so many people are in what is, to them, a foreign language.

I suspect if English is one’s first language we can forget that the reason so many people learn English isn’t primarily to talk to British (or American) people, but with each other.  Even so, just because everyone else is learning to speak English, there is no reason for British people not to embrace foreign languages passionately.

In a list of facilitating subjects published by the Russell Group of universities (subjects they rate as good to do for the purposes of getting into their universities) modern and classical languages are up there with maths, physics and history. Learning and understanding a foreign language well is a hard task. Nevertheless you don’t need to be aspiring to A level – or even GCSE in order to get stuck into using foreign languages. The summer, and the annual “foreign exchange” season, is approaching fast.  Well organised parents are engaged in a fluster of emails and networking trying to find a lovely family (or anybody) in a foreign country to take their child so that they can practise speaking in another tongue and can find out what it’s like to “Come over to My House”.

What a brilliant opportunity and adventure it can be for a young person – in terms of experience and learning new skills beyond the linguistic. I’m not sure anyone can understand another’s culture till they’ve tried the breakfast several times – hot chocolate and croissant; Dairy-Lee triangle cheese and day old bread; salami on rye… different food can be a complete revelation, as can different table manners.  Staying with an extended French family my eldest discovered that not only did they have linen napkins for every meal, but they each had to devise their own idiosyncratic knot in the napkin to identify which was theirs. He says he was grateful for this task to absorb him while the tides of incomprehensible chatter washed over him.

It is a challenging experience not understanding a word any one says and feeling isolated. At the very least the two things you can learn are that communication may not need any spoken language (football and Frisbee are pretty universal) and nothing lasts for ever, eventually you get to go home. At best friendships are made for life based on shared fun and the roots and love of a different place, culture and language can be incubated.

A few years ago we hosted a young French rugby fanatic: he went to parties, dances and Highland games; he swam in sea lochs and ran up steep glens; he spent his first “nuit blanche” chatting around a bonfire on the coast; and we fed him copious amounts of food.  But come the moment when he wrote in the visitors’ book, after brief thanks, he announced that the most important aspect of his stay was that: “I saw a beautiful girl and now I am in love.”  His feelings, unfortunately, were not reciprocated – and so he experienced the ecstasy and agony of first love which are surely the same in any language

Back page Come over to My House


A time to every purpose

“To everything there is a season; and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3. 1

Calendars – not as simple as one might imagine: the quarter day on 25th March is also known as Lady Day. Traditionally it was the day on which tenant agreements started, contracts concluded. Since then, through a convoluted series of changes from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, in 1752 what used to happen on 25th March now happens on 6th April. It isn’t the time for the beginning of things so much as the time when hard graft starts. It would be a poor tenant that arrived on his farm to spend the first few weeks settling in and getting to have a feel for the land – he’d have missed an awful lot of the planting stage. I have been surrounded by 16 year olds revising for GCSE’s and students heading towards their finals and I have been remembering the struggle to stay focussed while one’s mind meanders to more amusing areas.

A couple of weeks ago The Times had an article about 20 adventures a child should have before they are 16 – some smashing ideas, however if you haven’t put in the ground work of learning to swim; being able to use a hammer; know how matches work; and developing a modicum of common sense first these would not be fun for anyone. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/health/child-health/article3726240.ece. But if all these japes and adventures were included regularly what larks you could have.

At our local infant school we have been looking at ways to help children make better progress. The system of monitoring and testing and then publishing results puts tremendous pressure on teachers – on the other hand being able to read well is a vital life skill and there are all too many people (particularly in prison) that have slipped through the net. One of the biggest determinants of progress is parental / home input. After all children spend a scant 13% of their time actually in school and the timetable has to fit in an awful lot of stuff (like maths..) so what else is going on in their lives has an enormous impact.

Reading – the key to all learning – is a life skill ostensibly taught at school. Research shows that one of the most straight forward ways of ensuring children make progress in school is by helping them with reading – listening to a child read for only 10 minutes a day make the biggest difference – they practise the skills, develop comprehension and acquire understanding. This research also shows this to be the case even when the adult’s first language is not English – or if they themselves have poor reading skills (or can’t read at all). But as the evenings lighten and the thrill of being in a new academic year has diminished I know I am tempted to do something other than spend those 10 minutes or so slogging through the murky middle stages of a reading scheme, or chapter 12 (of 33) in the story of rescued pet puppies. Don’t be tempted, I tell myself – being able to read is what will make a pivotal difference to life long learning. And there is a time for adventures in the promising months of summer.

The grafting 16 and 22 year old probably don’t remember the struggle with “tricky words” like enough and bough – but one way or another they made it through. I just hope the time for learning and the time for playing will balance out. … “A time to plant, and a time to pluck-up that which is planted”.