Recruitment and appointments that emphasise keeping students safe


A key task for any board is appointing the principal. A Ministry resource[18] acknowledges that boards do not undertake this task very often and therefore most seek advice and guidance from various sources. The NZSTA guidance to boards notes that while most boards delegate some responsibility for other appointments to the principal, the actual and extent of the delegation must be by way of resolution, recorded in writing to the person concerned, and should form part of the board’s appointment policy. (p. 26)[19]

The Ministerial Inquiry noted that boards had the right to rely on the State’s statutory, role-specific registration agency.

[boards] should be able to take comfort from the fact that if a person presents with evidence of official Teachers Council registration, that person will have had a clean police vet and met the minimum requirements for good character and fitness to teach. (p. 34)

Nevertheless, the Ministerial Inquiry found there was over-reliance on the assurance provided by New Zealand Teachers Council registration. Many boards did not carry out additional checks of applicants’ suitability, performance, identity or qualifications.

Even where the Council’s registration data and associated documentary information are reliable, responsibility for validation, verification and authentication of all material supplied by an applicant still rests with the board. (p. 34)

What ERO evaluated

ERO evaluated whether a school had a good understanding about recruitment and appointment processes that emphasise student safety. To do this ERO evaluated:

  • how well the recruitment and appointments policies and procedures reflected the importance of student safety
  • the way the trustees, principal and teachers handled appointments, especially checking applicants’ suitability for the role
  • the situations where the checking had not been thorough.

What ERO found

Key findings

  • Most schools had documented policies and practices for employing teachers and principals, but the amount of detail in policies varied.
  • Most boards sought external professional education expertise when they appointed a principal.
  • Approximately one-third of schools did not have appropriate appointment processes
  • Checking needs to be more robust, particularly related to matters concerning student safety. This includes verifying identity, checking background and experience, and police vetting.
  • Some principals and appointment committees relied on applicant’s honesty, their own ability to judge character or trusted professional and local networks.

School policies and procedures

Almost all schools surveyed said they had policies and procedures for appointing staff, but the content and detail varied. Most schools included information about:

  • board involvement with appointing leaders or senior staff (97 percent)
  • delegation to the principal for any staff appointments (90 percent)
  • delegation to an appointment committee for any staff appointments (83 percent).

Schools were least likely to describe procedures for some key aspects that may impact on student safety, such as asking whether applicants have been the subject of a complaint concerning student safety, and the importance of thorough background checks.

What guidelines do boards have for setting up the appointment process?

About half the schools included key information in their procedures related to setting up the appointment process (see Figure 4). Boards make themselves vulnerable if they do not establish clear expectations through their policies and procedures for recruitment.

Policies and procedures for appointing principals generally provided less detail than those for appointing staff. This was especially true for checking background and performance of applicants and asking for disclosure of criminal convictions. This lack of guidelines may be because most boards use an external professional in the principal appointment process and expect they will get advice from that person.

Figure 4: Percentage of schools with policies and procedures that describe particular tasks associated with appointing staff and the principal

figure 4 is a bar graph called percentage of schools wiht policies and procedures that describe particular tasks associated wiht appointing staff and the principal. The x-axis is ranges from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The y-axis is labelled with 5 categoreies, which each have two bars called percent for appointing staff and percent for appointin principal. The catergories from top to bottom are, the role and ocmpositon of appointment committee (for which the percentages are 71% for staff and 57% for principal), Developing the job description and person specification to support strategic direcetion (64% and 53%), Obtaining independent professional advice (53% and 53%), Privacy and confidentiality guidelines (63% and 52%), Deciding the interview questions and/or presentation require (52% and 47%).

Three-quarters of the application forms for staff positions and over half the application forms for principal positions asked for disclosure of criminal convictions. However, Figure 5 shows that far fewer asked whether applicants had been the subject of a complaint about student safety (15 percent for staff positions and 24 percent for principal positions).

Figure 5: Percentage of schools with application forms for staff and principal positions asking for particular information

figure 5 is a bar graph called percentage of schools wiht application forms for staff and principal positions asking for particular information.  The x-axis is ranged from 0-100 at interval of 20. The y-axis is labelled with three categories, which each have two bars called percentage for appointing staff and percentage for appointing principal.  The catergories from top to bottom are: asking for disclosure of criminal convictions (for which the percentages are 76% for staff and 55% for principal), Obtaining authorisation from applicant to seek information from a wide range of people (55% and 43%), and asking whether they have been the subject of any complaint concerning the safety of a student (15% and 24%)

What guidelines do boards have for checking applicants’ suitability?

Figure 6 shows that although schools reported in the survey that their procedures usually included statements about checking applicants’ background and performance (81 percent for appointing staff and 54 percent for appointing principals), fewer schools had details about how various checks would be carried out (37 to 49 percent for appointing staff and 39 to 45 percent for appointing a principal). Approximately, one-quarter included how the school would deal with information about a criminal conviction.

Figure 6: Percentage of schools with procedures for checking background and performance for staff and principal position

figure 6 is a bar graph called percentage of schools with procedures for checking background and performance for staff and principal positions. The x-axis is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The y-axis is labelled with seven catergories which each have two bars called percent for appointing staff and percent for appointing principals. The catergories from top to bottom are: checking background and performance of applicants (which the percentages are 81% for staff and 54% for principals), Importance of carrying out thorough checks of references and previous employment (37% and 39%), Responsibility for checking references (42% and 44%), deciding the questions to ask referees (44% and 41%), Validating and verifying qualifications (sighting orignials of all documents supplied)(46% and 39%), and dealing with information about an applicants or employers criminal conviction (29% and 26%)

School practices

When ERO looked at policies while onsite ERO found that about:

  • 80 percent of primary schools and 74 percent of secondary schools had appropriate recruitment and appointment processes
  • 70 percent of primary schools and 90 percent of secondary schools carried out all or most checks robustly.

Two-thirds of the schools used appropriate processes and also carried out robust checking of suitability. Approximately 30 percent of schools had:

  • effective appointment processes, but did not undertake robust checking; or
  • carried out robust checks, but did not have effective appointment processes.

Six percent of schools were not effective in either aspect. This means one‑third of schools are vulnerable to making appointment decisions that could put their students at risk.

Did schools have suitable applicants applying for roles?

The Ministerial Inquiry was concerned that schools made appointment decisions when there was no suitable applicant due to teacher shortages. ERO found only 19 of the 148 schools surveyed reported instances of a lack of suitable applicants. Appendix 6 provides information from the board and principal surveys about applications for staff and principal positions, re-advertising, and costs involved in appointing a principal.

What reference and background checking is done for staff appointments?

Boards need to be satisfied that the verification process is robust. Gathering information and views from a range of people is likely to result in more effective assessment of suitability and selecting the person with the best fit for the school. About half the schools surveyed said their application form asked for consent to approach people, other than those named, to gather information and advice on suitability.

Almost two-thirds of schools surveyed involved people other than the board and principal in the appointment process. Half the primary schools and 70 percent of secondary schools involved senior staff. Some involved staff or syndicate/department leaders for teacher and senior positions, and some involved another principal for deputy principal positions. A few schools involved parents or students. These people were most often involved in the interviews, shortlisting, on the appointment committee, or in deciding who to select.

Ninety percent of schools contacted the nominated referees, 60 percent contacted the current school and 45 percent contacted previous schools. Reference checks were usually carried out by phone, although a few schools used email or letter.

Whose references do schools value?

Schools placed a lot of weight on checking with the current school. Some noted they always checked the current school or did not shortlist applicants who had not nominated their current school. The following comment is an example of this practice.

Although not written in our policy and procedures the principal contacts referees. The school also has a clause in the application form that permits the school to ascertain information about the applicant from previous employers who may not be listed as referees. The applicant signs this approval on the application form. If it is not signed we cannot take this further. Based on this survey we will insert a clear statement with regard to complaints concerning the safety of students. Up to this point of time we have focussed on the criminal conviction aspect. This survey is timely as we are revising our school appointments policy. (Primary school)

Principals made the contact with referees in 87 percent of schools surveyed, and/or senior staff did so in 22 percent of schools. Seventy-one percent of schools carried out reference checks to confirm the shortlist and thirty-three percent of schools used reference checks to confirm appointment. Some schools used reference checks at both stages – to finalise the shortlist and then to follow up particular areas or verify information provided; or to contact one referee to decide on the shortlist and then other referees to finalise the selection.

How robust are the checks?

ERO found that while most schools carried out a wide range of checks, some checking was not sufficiently robust to provide assurance for boards as illustrated in the example below.

One of the recent appointments was a provisionally registered teacher, who had been long-term relieving in the school. His Curriculum Vitae had gaps, and he was unable to provide evidence of what he did in these years. Alongside this was the knowledge that he had graduated in 1999 but was still not fully registered. The board assumed that there was nothing untoward, because the Teachers Council would have done the police checks. However, the principal said she did question him about the ‘gaps’ and accepted his reasons so did no further checking beyond his previous employer. (Primary school)

In appointing teachers, schools generally checked current registration on the assumption that this guaranteed that the Teachers Council had checked police records, qualifications and backgrounds. Principals contacted referees, and assumed that this provided a check on identity as well as suitability. The Ministerial Inquiry report showed that these assumptions are not necessarily valid. The examples below show less robust checking.

Consideration for assessing risks is carried out more from ‘gut feeling’ rather than predetermined processes. Usually only one referee is contacted by phone. There is little exploring of background in depth and qualifications are taken at face value. There is a reliance on the current teacher registration process to ensure the person is fit for teaching and their qualifications are authentic. (Primary school)

The board accepted that they had not, to date, had specific discussions of what alarm signals would trigger more extensive checks of a person’s identification or qualifications. In addition, the board agreed that, in future, at the time of ratifying appointments, they would now make a specific mention of the fact that the required background checks had been done. (Primary school)

Some primary schools relied on local knowledge. They sometimes appointed non‑teaching staff without advertising or checking (for example, teacher aides, caretakers) because they were parents of current students. These people are in close contact with students and the Ministerial Inquiry report showed they can take advantage of this to groom students. One school was still waiting for, and had not followed up on, a police vet for someone who began working at the school four months previously. The following example illustrates that once people are aware of the requirements they take action.

There are gaps in ensuring that all necessary steps related to employment are undertaken as this is a small community and everyone is related. A significant gap in understanding was evident in that the male board member who was covering until a new teacher could be employed had no police vet or Limited Authority to Teach. The caretaker has no police vet and says he sometimes takes kids into the bush with him in the holidays on his pest control beat. ERO raised these potential risks as matters of urgency with the principal and board who responded promptly. (Primary school)

About half the schools surveyed asked for an open consent to approach a range of other people to check suitability for the particular role, although some schools believed the Privacy Act meant they could not contact anyone that was not specifically named. As mentioned earlier, 78 percent of schools had statements about the Privacy Act but it was not clear whether their practices were based on correct interpretation of this legislation.

How accurate is the information?

Some principals told anecdotes about principals not providing objective information depending on whether they wanted to get rid of a teacher or keep them. The following are examples of principals giving misleading references to prospective employers.

Referees are asked searching questions. The board chair spoke about following up on what isn’t being said. He also spoke about receiving a very positive written referee’s report, which he followed up with a phone call. The referee then gave him an opposite picture and said he had felt obliged to write a positive statement. This has made the board chair very wary of written referee statements. (Primary school)

The principal gave an example of a referee check where a principal gave a lukewarm reference for a teacher and that he subsequently found out the principal did not want to lose this staff member. (Secondary school)

What external advice and support did schools use when appointing a principal?

When appointing a principal, approximately 80 percent of schools surveyed involved someone else in the process - 46 percent involved an external professional, and 30 percent another principal.[20] A few schools involved parents, whānau, retired principals, Ministry staff, kaumātua, Catholic schools’ advisors or proprietor’s representatives.

These people were usually involved because of their professional experience or knowledge of employment processes. Others had knowledge of the school or special character requirements. Some of them provided advice only; some guided the whole process; while others helped with specific aspects, such as preparing job descriptions, making a shortlist of applicants, interviewing, setting questions, background checks, and giving feedback on applicant’s strengths and weaknesses.

The following comments illustrate the recognition by two boards of the benefits of accessing advice and support.

We felt as a board that we knew the kind of person we wanted, and what skills we were looking for, and designed a very robust selection process. But we lacked confidence in the checks and balances and processes that are specific to principal recruitment because of our complete lack of experience in doing so. Recognising this we engaged the external (and highly recommended from another board chair) advisor who was familiar with the process and knew what was required. (Primary school chairperson)

Having now been through it, it is a very onerous task but one that is critical. We can see the benefit of having the board, as community members, responsible for the recruitment but at the same time I feel it is important that the board is able to navigate through the process confidently. I would strongly urge any other board contemplating such recruitment, and having never been through it before, to engage an advisor to help them through it. (Secondary school chairperson)

Some boards were confident in their own abilities and felt they did not need external advice. The response from one board chairperson illustrates this.

We spent a lot of time up front consulting and getting input from our own board members, the proprietors, staff, and parents. So the job description, selection criteria and then interview questions went through the whole board and we had meaningful discussions before the time. We thus obtained a good alignment of our decision‑making process with the values expressed in the documents. We put the effort into the preparation up front, and then it was plain sailing for us afterwards, and everyone was happy with the outcome. We based our recruitment around three sets of documents: the Professional Standards for Primary Principals, our own Strategic Plan, and our existing recruitment policies. We felt that the Professional Standards really were an exemplary document, being so useful in setting out the default expectations that we could expect from any applicant at this level. We just adopted those as they were. They were so good. We just added our own special character requirements, and some things relevant to our strategic plan, and it was all done. (Primary school chairperson)

What reference and background checking is done for principal positions?

Seventy percent of schools surveyed asked applicants for their consent to gather information on suitability from people other than those named.

Board chairs did the referee checking in half the schools. In other schools, the checks were carried out by a consultant or advisor, a board committee, or the whole board. Schools were more likely to carry out the checks to confirm the shortlist (65 percent) than to confirm the appointment (37 percent). Nine percent contacted referees at both stages. Sometimes this was to follow up on information provided at interviews and sometimes it was to consult more widely.

Eighty-five percent of schools contacted the referees nominated by the applicant, 71 percent contacted the board or principal at the current school, and 53 percent contacted previous schools. This is a similar pattern to referees for staff positions (90 percent, 60 percent and 45 percent respectively). Referee checks were usually made by phone, although one-fifth of boards said they emailed referees. It is concerning that 15 percent of boards did not contact nominated referees.

Good practices for appointing staff other than the principal

The next section describes the comprehensive practices seen in some schools that promote consistency, transparency, and fairness when selecting the most appropriate staff, along with consideration of student safety. These practices include actions taken before advertising the position, actions throughout the selection process, and checking the suitability of the selected applicant.

What did schools do to ensure consistency, transparency and fairness?

A few schools had developed templates with instructions to guide various aspects of the process and to ensure consistency, transparency and fairness. The templates were for:

  • developing the job specification
  • developing a shortlist based on the job description and specifications
  • discussions with referees based on job specifications or interview responses, including explaining the ethical behaviour of referees
  • the interview, including questions to ask, criteria and responses, the reasons to support the recommendation, and explaining the ethical behaviour of interviewers
  • the review of the process and suggestions for improvements.

Before advertising for staff, the following actions ensured schools had carefully considered the procedures they would follow and the specific qualities they sought for the position. These actions were:

  • developing and following clear detailed documentation of appropriate procedures when recruiting and appointing staff
  • linking processes to legislation and using NZSTA checklists
  • developing detailed job descriptions, sometimes linked to the Registered Teacher Criteria, the appropriate Collective Agreement professional standards or Tatāiako[21]
  • seeking external advice, especially for principal and senior positions (for example, a human resource professional, another principal, NZSTA)
  • asking for authorisation from applicants to contact widely to check background and suitability
  • asking applicants to attest they did not have any convictions, including any charges pending.

What did robust assessment of suitability look like?

After applications were received, schools with robust appointment processes systematically assessed the applicants against their requirements and checked their suitability by:

  • using the job description and criteria as the basis to shortlist applicants by rating the relevance of their skills and experience
  • checking referees’ job titles, place of employment and work land-line to ensure referees are who the applicant says they are
  • contacting a range of referees, including the principal at their current school, and asking searching questions about background, performance, suitability for the particular position, reason for leaving, and whether the referee would re-employ them
  • informally seeking out information through professional networks such as principal groups, professional networks, and trustee networks
  • asking a wide range of questions during the interviews to explore applicants’ fit with the criteria for the particular position and with the school, that covered:
    • background
    • qualifications and experience
    • attitude to teaching and teaching in multi‑level classrooms
    • relationships with students and engaging students in learning
    • catering for diverse needs
    • managing difficult behaviour
    • how particular situations or scenarios would be handled
    • reasons for leaving job
  • shortlisted applicants spending a day at the school, or making a formal presentation to staff or the interview panel as to how they meet the job description criteria
  • selecting the teacher who best fits the school’s identified needs, priorities, philosophy or community.

The appointment process in some schools involved applicants teaching or interacting with students in some way, either formally or informally, to provide robust information about their relationships with students, and their teaching ability. These included shortlisted candidates:

  • teaching a short lesson
  • taking a tutorial for a small group of senior students
  • being observed teaching at their current school.

Students were involved in appointments in a variety of ways. These included:

  • providing input to the criteria for the position
  • contributing to the appointments process through questions they developed for the shortlisted applicants
  • interviewing the shortlisted candidates and compiling a list of their ordered preferences (with guidance from the staff representative on the board).

Information about beginning teachers was obtained by consulting the training provider or practicum teacher, or by observing their teaching.

One school consulted the local iwi when they were appointing to a position that relied on Māori cultural knowledge.

In addition to checking with a range of appropriate referees, the schools reviewed carried out a range of checks including:

  • checking Teachers Council registration
  • police vets of teaching staff
  • police vets of non-teaching staff
  • verifying qualifications
  • identity checks through photo ID such as passport or driver’s licence.

The following is an example of a robust appointment process.

The principal is knowledgeable about entitlement, advertising and the appointment process. He uses the NZSTA website, resources, and templates, and regularly asks for support. Using the NZSTA application form gives consent for the principal to contact previous employers. He checks references and then shortens the shortlist. Checking before short-listing assures him of the quality of the applicants. He usually interviews with a panel of three (to avoid impasse). The principal requests that teaching applicants reflect on the school’s mission and vision statement and how they will give effect to this in the school for reading, writing and mathematics. Successful candidates get an offer of position (again using NZSTA templates). Agreements are signed. Registration information is checked. For a final check the principal requires proof of identity such as passport or driver’s licence that is then matched with the teacher registration card, and original qualifications. An offer of appointment subject to the applicant meeting requirements is made. This appointment process has been followed for six new staff members this year. (Primary school)

Good practices for appointing a principal

Only 26 primary schools and five secondary schools visited by ERO reviewers had appointed a principal recently. This meant limited information was found about the robustness of the processes schools used to appoint a principal.

How did schools ensure the appointment matched the school vision?

Good practice associated with principal appointment included having a strong link to the community vision for the school.

Some boards sought parent views when developing the criteria for the position. The following is an example of a school involving its community when selecting a principal.

When the board knew a new sole-charge principal was to be sought they took the opportunity to consult fully with their wider community, including students, to find out what everyone wanted for the future of the school. This included the curriculum and charter being reviewed. The community articulated clearly what they wanted for the future, as well as the personal specifications they wanted for their principal. All the trustees were on the appointments panel. (Primary school)

The following comprehensive process occurred in one secondary school:

The board got advice from another principal and NZSTA about the process to appoint the principal. The long-serving former chair, who had recently resigned, assisted with the appointment process. The whole board was involved in clarifying what they wanted for the school. The Professional Standards for principals were used to draw up criteria. A detailed job application form provided guidance for the curriculum vitae format, included permission for a wide range of people to be contacted, and asked about convictions. The interview process included a presentation to staff and meeting with senior students. A board member attended the meeting with students and gave their feedback to the board. The staff representative on the board provided staff feedback. The board looked carefully at those given as referees and consulted all of them accordingly. (Secondary school)

Recommendations - next steps for Boards

ERO recommends that key information about the background and suitability of applicants is collected as part of schools’ processes for appointing all staff (principals, teachers, and non-teaching staff).

Boards should ensure that their school’s appointment process includes:

  • using the guidelines and application template from NZSTA
  • asking applicants about convictions, any possible pending charges and any complaints concerning student safety
  • asking applicants for consent to seek information from a wide range of people beyond the named referees
  • ensuring that the referees are appropriate to provide the information the school is seeking
  • a clear process when checking applicant’s background and performance by contacting more people, asking searching questions such as about any concerns related to student safety and reasons for leaving, and documenting responses
  • formally checking people are who they say they are, such as through photo identity
  • verifying qualifications.


Boards can use this spreadsheet to review or plan appointment processes.

Tools - Student Safety - Recruitment and appointment (Excel 2007 20 kB)