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To bin or not to bin…? How some people will sift their job applicants.

While the teaching profession has, in my view, been at the forefront of changes in attitudes and behaviour that has brought about a more tolerant and inclusive society, it also includes people who can disguise as well as justify their prejudices.

If you're a teacher looking for a new job, it's best not to forget that, especially if you can do something to avoid being the object of someone else's prejudice.

Some years ago, and at a time when the equal opportunities climate was at its steamy height, I was a senior teacher working with a head to shortlist a candidate for a new teaching job in the school. We had more than 35 applications for the post which, at that time, was a lot. In those days people tended to hand write their application forms and mail them as hard copies, even though wordprocessing was widely in use. I thought I was in for a long afternoon of painstaking reading and careful consideration of "person specification and competency based criteria" set against "evidence of experience and accomplishments" blah, blah, blah.

Instead the headteacher, who was a very experienced, kind-hearted and fair woman, said to me: "Alan, watch this."

She then set about sifting the pile of forms stacked up on her desk. Each application was being glanced at momentarily and then in turn, either being laid carefully on her desk or being dropped unceremoniously in the waste paper bin at the side of it.

I watched, but there was no pattern to her judgment. One on her desk, the next two in the bin, the next two on her desk, the next five in the bin, one on her desk, three in the bin and so it went on, one after the other, apparently randomly.

About three quarters of the way through the pile I hadn't worked out the pattern, so I said: "OK. I give up. What's the secret?"

"Oh there's no secret," she said. "But you've got to get down to a shortlist somehow. If some people can't be bothered to write out their applications in handwriting that is legible and neat, I certainly can't be bothered to try and read it. What's more, I don't want them in my school teaching handwriting or, for that matter, anything else!"

If you think that wouldn't happen now, you're wrong.

Only a couple of years ago, I was visiting another headteacher in her office when she did something very similar. This time she had twice the number of applications and was doing her 'first sift' as she called it by examining them for spelling mistakes. I recounted my story to her and she made a similar remark:

"She was right. If people can't even be bothered to use a spell checker, let alone proofread their own application form, then they don't really want to work here. I'm not denying them the opportunity of a job. They're ruling themselves out."

Is this prejudice? Unethical?

Or is it a justifiable discrimination and just plain common sense?

  • Here are my top tips for avoiding howlers on job application forms: Make sure you address the person specification item by item, this is what is required to do the job. This section wants evidence of your various competences at doing specific things not just your experience of doing them. For example, you might have just had a great time studying maths to PhD level at a top university, but the job requires you to have the competence to teach it at A-level, so focus on your competence rather than your experience.

  • Don't be frightened to blow your own trumpet. Clearly state your achievements in relevant and similar jobs (if that's possible) and don't be shy about waxing lyrical about them. You want the employer reading your application to know what you did, how you did it and what was the outcome, even if it wasn't successful, the ability to reflect on the reasons for failure is a positive attribute.

  • Check your spellings, grammar, punctuation and typos (such as extra or unwanted spaces). Make sure the layout is neat and orderly. Read it out loud and see if it makes sense. Get someone else to read it.

  • Don't lie, make up outrageous stories or try to cover up that six months you spent in prison or the year you spent bumming around South East Asia, be straight about unexplained period of absences from employment.

  • Declare any criminal convictions and cautions, they would have to be pretty serious and relevant to bar you from a teaching post anyway. That conviction for being drunk and disorderly on the high street on your 21st birthday won't count against you nor will most other things you will be surprised to find. Believe it or not, society is generally a forgiving place. Just don't do it again now that you're a teacher.

Finally, wish yourself some good luck.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.

His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ is published by Crown House Publishing and can be ordered here.


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