Guerilla Recruitment & Beating the System

Posted on June 4, 2016


Back in 2011 the BBC News website reported that schools were spending an astonishing £293 million on supply staff.

By 2015 that figure, as reported by the same news agency, had risen from the astonishing to the mind-boggling, with costs being reported as £733 million.

I have no doubt about the fact that by the end of this parliament (for it is a parliamentary matter above all else) this will have become a £1 billion industry, sucking in ever more funds as the recruitment crisis (what crisis?) bites harder and harder.

At the same time, schools have been facing progressively worsening financial conditions, forcing those like me with the title Accounting Officer to accompany that of Headteacher to hold the salami against the slicer as best we can to ensure that each slice is as thin as it possibly can be.  For the lucky ones, and I count myself amongst these, there’s still some daylight between blade and fingers.  I’m well aware that others are not so fortunate.

Recruitment agencies have always been good at playing the ‘supply and demand’ game – far better than governments and schools – but there are signs that the more urgent the demand the better and better they are becoming at cornering and squeezing value out of the supply.  In the halcyonic days of yore I remember being unbegrudging as they helped us fill holes in daily supply or secured commonwealth colleagues for the vastly underrated (and therefore horrendously over-mobile) workforce we had in the notoriously hard-to-recruit London fringe in Watford.  They charged a pretty penny for their services, but my goodness how they served our needs.  I dread to think how we would have worked the miracles we did without them.

But that was then and this is now.  And now I do begrudge them, because now they are mobilising to corner the market in a way that is genuinely starting to keep me awake at night (so far the only thing as Headteacher that has done so other than the death of former students this year).  Even as I draft this I wonder whether or not I will publish the true nature of my feelings in case it impacts upon relations with these agencies in the future, and contemplation of self-censorship is a sure sign that something is broken somewhere in the system.

There are three pet gripes I have with the supply system at the moment and none are directly related to the cost (or even the quality) of daily supply, however inflated those costs may have become.

The first gripe is the way in which supply agencies are sweeping up newly-qualified teachers in their droves long before they begin looking for work.  No longer are agencies for those who can’t find or don’t want permanent work.  The second, related, gripe is the astoundingly high levels of ‘finders fees’ being charged by agencies, sometimes even when schools have already paid for advertising fees simply because they have directed those ‘swept up’ teachers on their books to the advert.  The third gripe is the increasing adeptness of these agencies in responding to policy changes (just this week I had one agency emailing to offer us teachers through the new extended induction period that so far hasn’t even made it from a White Paper to parliament).

Actually I do have a fourth gripe with agencies, but that gripe is wrapped up in the political choices made by government and the personal choices made by practitioners.  All of the above mean that more and more potential colleagues are being empowered to use their agency to push for better terms and conditions than many existing colleagues.   This is a move that further deregulates the national terms and conditions for the profession, sows the seeds of institutional disharmony and, perhaps most importantly for those who remain forever on supply contracts, removes a huge tranche of in-work benefits such as pension provision, sick pay and the perks of permanence.

But my issues with recruitment do not lie solely with supply agencies and their never-ending emails for ‘exceptional’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘not-to-be-missed’ opportunities to recruit their subscribers.  Just as dispiriting has been the response of those advertising teacher jobs.  At a time when the demand in London is rising as a result of demographic growth and when the supply is falling as a result of increased rents and out-of-range mortgages (five colleagues are heading overseas this year and I suspect that many more will follow – Wilshaw was speaking the truth about a brain-drain) the costs and efficacy of advertising using the well-established channels are inversely proportional in all the wrong ways.  Like the agencies, advertisers are responding with ever more selective layers of options to help your advertisement gain priority in print or website formats, and each has an ever more pricey price-tag.

So what does all this mean for a school like ours, and what on earth do I mean by guerrilla recruitment?  Let me put it into context.

In my first year as Headteacher, I reckon that we spent at least £35k more than we needed to in ensuring that we were fully staffed for the 2015-16 academic year.  Our Business Manager says more but some of these costs are not easily quantified and others may be offset by savings elsewhere.  Whatever the figure though it was at least equivalent to a whole qualified teacher with a full timetable.  Let that sink in.  We spent the equivalent of a teacher on ensuring we had enough teachers.  Such a depressing thought and we were marginal spenders compared to many other schools we know or of which we are aware.

At least £10k of that was spent on adverts that arguably led to the appointment of only one teacher, a teacher who already knew of us anyway and who possibly would have applied anyway.  The rest of the respondents – depressingly small fields at each interview – came through twitter, by personal recommendations from staff, through being with us for PGCE or by contact with those who had done so.

A further £15k of the total figure came, astonishingly, from securing two wonderful colleagues on permanent contracts through agencies by paying ‘finder’s fess’.

The final £10k minimum came from the estimated ‘over-and-above’ money to agencies of having colleagues on long-term supply contracts.  As I said, the gross figure is probably a lot higher, but these are valued colleagues who have offset some of that by being very much our colleagues, not mercenaries out to do as little as possible.

So, going into this recruitment season it has been our aim to spend no money on advertising and no money on supply agencies and to be fully staffed with permanent colleagues at the end of the process.  And to do this we have had to use the following ‘guerrilla recruitment’ strategies:

Staff Finder’s Fee

We have built into our recruitment process a ‘finder’s fee’ for staff who are named on application forms by applicants.  This is a relatively small amount (to ensure that poor applicants are not put forward for personal gain – not that I think any colleague would do so) but significant enough to make a difference to a colleague’s pay packet.  The named colleague can play no part in a recruitment process.  The process itself outweighs any personal recommendations (it is what you know not who you know that matters).  As the person who makes the ultimate decision, and as the Accounting Officer, I am the only member of staff who can’t benefit from such a fee.

Social Media Recruitment

With grave apologies for those who follow me on twitter (and perhaps more apologies for those who have unfollowed me) for the blatant and self-serving/school-serving tweets about Drama teachers in particular.  Linked to the staff finder’s fee we have also established quite a presence on Facebook too and you can always contact us through Canons High School official account there.  I know that it’s not what social media was made for, but if we are ever going to buck the system I suspect that we have to get more and more used to such guerrilla tactics.

As and When Interviews

Our posts are advertised on our website ( and, much to the chagrin of my PA who oversees recruitment, there aren’t any closing dates for any teacher vacancies.  If you’re good enough then it is soon enough to interview.  We have lost too many potential colleagues waiting for closing dates and interview dates to roll around and are confident enough in our selection process to not worry about needing a field to identify who to appoint or not.

“Give me your tired…”

What most astonishes me as a backdrop to all that I have mentioned above is that so many Headteachers are marginalising, brutalising and casting aside so many teachers because of one bad year, because they need support or because they don’t quite fit a top-down, Ofsted-driven school agenda.  Many more leave such places unable to see colleagues treated this way.  We don’t seek references ahead of interview days, don’t read them before selection and, where references are less than glowing and interviewees have shone, we defer to our own professional judgment every time.  It’s a risk, I suppose, but none has failed to pay-off yet and we will happily play the part of second-chance saloon (I’ve drunk there myself) rather than let good teachers leave the profession because of bad experiences.

Playing Chicken

Perhaps the most important part of this ‘guerrilla recruitment’ strategy, and the bit that causes me most consternation, is the temptation to abandon it in the face of some challenging-to-fill vacancies, the ongoing pressure on core subjects, the desire of others to have a field, the perhaps futile optimism that the old methods will self-correct, the last-minute resignations and any other of a million possible problems with guerrilla tactics.  At present we have vacancies in Drama, English and Maths and the temptation to plonk an advert in the national educational press is there, as is the temptation to do a trawl of the local supply agencies, but we are resisting these temptations.  I hope that we manage to do so successfully and we have to remember that some of our best ever recruitment in the past has come late (two phenomenal history teachers in the last week of the summer term if my 44 year old memory still serves me well).  Pragmatism will have its day if it must – the school comes ahead of ideology – but idealism is always worth the wait.

Love the ones you’re with

Underscoring all of these guerrilla tactics though is the most fundamental aspect of our work;  being the kind of school for those who already work here that will attract those looking for a school that will care for, nurture and enable them to be the kind of teachers they always wanted to be.  This year has been a challenge for us in terms of turnover of staff, but none of those moving on is moving on for the wrong reasons and all have expressed sadness at leaving a “second home”, a “wonderful staffroom” and an “amazing community”.  Most have expressed the desire to return when their wanderlust has been sated, when they can afford to buy a London property or when the promotion they are moving on to has given them the skills, knowledge and experience to return in a more senior position.

Our exciting internal roles (Grassroots Leaders, Research Advocate, System Leaders and Digital Advocate), our Teaching School Alliance and Multi-Academy Trust work, our new Community Heartbeat programme – about which I really must write a post – all offer amazing opportunities for colleagues to extend themselves in different (but not better) ways to those who follow more traditional routes through school.  And, most importantly, we are a school that values people and the complexity of different people with different ideas on how to teach and how to lead.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach, no non-negotiables (other than success for staff and students) and no top-down-knows-best attitude at the school.  Those we employ have two qualities that it is our job to encourage and empower:  they are in the job for the right reasons and they want to get better at what they do.  All else follows from this.

And if all of that sounds like advertising to you?  Damn right.  Even this post is a part of our guerrilla recruitment.  Hopefully it has given enough in return to merit your understanding.  If it has, please re-blog or share it.  The more schools that use these guerrilla techniques, the better chance we have of beating the system for the good of us all.


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