Ten Years of Evolving Recruitment Practices: The ITFCP Recruitment Committee Journey

Pauline O’Brien, Director of Global Recruitment, Strategy & Business Development, International Schools Services (ISS)

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Ten years ago, the international school community was catapulted into a state of tremendous shock. The horrifying revelation that a predator had worked in international schools for over 40 years, abusing over 400 boys in nine countries, raised urgent questions. How could this be possible? Did no one know or suspect? Did anyone report? How was he hired? Were references checked? The situation made it glaringly apparent that recruitment practices were based largely on trusting relationships and informal networks. While warmth and trust are essential in school communities, this approach was evidently unsafe and harmful to children and their families. 

Hiring practices often involved attending a series of recruitment fairs and making offers with minimal checks and balances. Reference checks typically meant calling acquaintances and relying on reference forms from agencies. This method, driven by the convenience of immediate hiring at fairs, was common practice. Coming from an industry background, I knew what a thorough recruitment process should look like, irrespective of the position’s level. Standardised questions, behavioural and content-specific questions, multiple interviewers, and written evaluations were part of the process I was familiar with. However, when I discussed these practices with school leaders, the response was, “No, we don’t do it like that in schools.” 

Early Steps Towards Change

With the formation of the ITFCP, sub-groups of volunteer committees were established to address various issues, including recruitment. The recruitment committee, comprising heads of schools and representatives from major recruitment agencies, aimed to unpack and understand current practices. By surveying international schools globally, we discovered a lack of conformity and standardisation in recruitment practices. 

We found that the responsibility and practice of recruitment were mostly carried out by the Head of School. HR files were non-existent in some cases, candidate profiles were inconsistent, and references were subjective or non-existent. Often, references were used to move people on when there were issues. Moreover, most school leaders had never undergone formal recruitment training, adapting practices based on tradition rather than necessity. 

Understanding the workings of perpetrators and how they infiltrate communities was crucial. Learning from clinical forensic psychologists, we realized that the best teachers and leaders could also be those targeting us to harm children. This understanding underscored the need for significant improvements in recruitment practices. 

Establishing and Updating Recruitment Standards

In 2016, we published the first recruitment checklist. Though not comprehensive, it served as a starting point, laying out all necessary steps for recruiting teachers and leaders. A screening and vetting protocol was included, but many school leaders found these steps unnecessary and time-consuming. Through workshops by CIS, ICMEC, and AISA, among others, school leaders gradually recognised the necessity for change and a new outlook on recruitment. 

A statement was created for schools, making it clear that individuals who posed a threat were not welcome in our communities. We encouraged schools to add these statements to their websites and job descriptions, serving as a deterrent to unsuitable candidates. 

We also focused on the recruitment processes, particularly screening and vetting at the process’s beginning. While some processes were followed early in the season, late hires often led to corners being cut, and necessary checks were neglected. 

We encouraged schools to have experts train them on safer recruitment practices. We also identified agencies that could help schools in securing background checks. Information sessions at regional educational conferences ensured that safer recruitment remained at the forefront of every process, year in and year out. 

Progress and Continued Challenges

In 2022 we undertook a comprehensive review and update of the recruitment checklist, which was then published in 2023. This updated checklist reflects the collective expertise of educational practitioners and specialist experts across multiple sectors. Key developments in the checklist include:

  • Selection Panels: Emphasizing the importance of having a selection panel in place to ensure multiple perspectives are considered during the hiring process.
  • Data Protection and Retention: Including guidelines on data protection and the retention of recruitment-related documents to ensure compliance with legal standards and safeguard sensitive information.
  • Ongoing Compliance and Best Practices: Encouraging schools to regularly review and refine their safer recruitment policies and practices, with an emphasis on continuous improvement and adaptation to new information and standards.
  • Job Descriptions and Specifications: Requiring clear and comprehensive job descriptions and specifications to ensure that all roles within the school are well-defined and expectations are communicated clearly to candidates.

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Highlights from the Updated Checklist

In Preparation for the Recruitment Process

  • Public Commitment: Schools must clearly articulate their commitment to child safeguarding on their websites and in job descriptions, serving as a deterrent to unsuitable candidates.
  • Safer Recruitment Training: At least one interviewer must have completed safer recruitment training, ensuring that child safeguarding questions are included in the first interview.
  • Reference Checks: References are taken prior to interviews, and current/former employees are informed that the school will disclose findings of any known misconduct when contacted for references.

During the Recruitment Process

  • Comprehensive Policies: School safeguarding and child protection policies now include a dedicated safer recruitment policy with detailed recruitment and selection procedures.
  • Application Forms: An application form is used to collect and document each applicant’s full work history, with no CVs accepted as replacements.
  • Reference Verification: References must come directly from previous employers, with a focus on those in supervisory roles who can comment on the applicant’s suitability to work with children.

Pre-employment Checks

  • Criminal Record Checks: Comprehensive criminal record checks are conducted for all countries where applicants have lived for six months or more in the past ten years.
  • Internet and Social Media Searches: Schools conduct internet and social media searches for each applicant, looking for any red flags related to child protection and safeguarding.



The journey over the past ten years has been one of learning, growth, and substantial progress. This transformation would not have been possible without the tireless efforts and dedication of our volunteers. These individuals have freely shared their expertise and time, ensuring that schools’ recruitment practices continuously evolve to better protect the children in our care. It has been a privilege to chair the committee and witness firsthand the commitment of so many to fostering safer school environments.

While we have made significant strides, continuous effort and vigilance are required to maintain and improve recruitment standards. By remaining steadfast in our commitment to these goals, the ITFCP can ensure that our schools remain safe havens for all students, free from the threat of harm.

As we look to the future, let us remain inspired by the progress we’ve made and motivated by the work that still lies ahead. Together, we can create a world where every child can learn and grow in safety.


For more detailed insights into the early failings and lessons learned, refer to the comprehensive analysis in this Guardian article.