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Landing the top job

Having spent 16 years leading a school, I have recently spent some time advising governing bodies on the appointment of a Headteacher. It has been a fascinating experience working with governors to ensure that they got the person they wanted.

Undoubtedly choosing a new Headteacher is the single most important decision that a governing body will make. Naturally they want to get it right and will try to ensure that a rigorous process is in place to make the best appointment. So, having observed the process first hand in watching several  Headteachers being appointed, what advice can I pass on to potential candidates looking to land the top role?

Usually a governing body will invite between 4 and 6 candidates for day 1 of the programme. The number of applications in the positions I have worked on has varied from 5 to 16. So, the first task is to get on to the shortlist. In all cases candidates were required to respond to a detailed job specification. They had to complete an application form and provide a letter of application, no more than 2 sides of A4. Then governors independently scored these. It was interesting to note some candidates did not respond to parts of the job specification which inevitably had an impact on their overall total and their chances of making the shortlist. A key piece of advice therefore must be to crosscheck your letter and application form against the job specification to ensure that you have covered as much of this as possible. It is also important that you relate all your previous experience to the job you are applying for. Governors are trying to establish if you will be a success in their school. You need to show an understanding of the context of the school you are applying to. With all the information about the school readily available electronically there really is no excuse for not being prepared. Far too often candidates made little reference to the school they were applying to. My advice is to show what you have done in your current post and the impact it has had but relate it to what you will do in your new school. In addition, under the section on courses, list things that show you have prepared for headship. You must also make sure that you are able to account for gaps in your employment history.

If possible, I would always advise you to make a pre-visit to the school. Preferably during the school day, but if not before or after school. Indeed, as some of the interviews that I have attended the governors asked for a list of candidates who had visited. They associated this with having a real interest in the post.

Having made it through to the interview stage you will then be faced with a variety of activities spanning either two or three days. Written tasks may well encompass an in-tray exercise, a data task or even an attempt to test the financial ability of prospective candidates so that they might be able to cope with the difficult financial times ahead. My experience to date suggests that these tasks do not differentiate between the candidates as much as the interviews. My main advice here regarding the in-tray exercise is to ensure that you do not try and do too much yourself. The exercise is looking to see if you can delegate effectively as well as prioritise. It is also about making sure that you do not make any serious errors. Take care here on safeguarding questions. Ensure that you have a good working knowledge of the data of the school that you are applying for. Other activities may involve leading an assembly, observing a lesson and feeding back to the teacher or leading a discussion either with a group of staff or the other candidates.

It is reasonable to request additional information from the school prior to interview. If you haven’t been sent it, I would ask for a copy of the School self-evaluation (SEF) and the School Improvement Plan (SIP). Nowadays there is a lot of information on schools which is in the public domain. Make sure that you have a good working knowledge of the school and pick out major concerns. Reading the latest Ofsted report is essential.

As a candidate you must understand the financial position of the school. You do not want to take up post in September to find a large budget deficit that you were unaware of and for which no action has been taken. Making staff redundant is not a good way to start a headship.

Another important part of the programme is the student panel. Underestimate this at your peril. Students have been chosen for this panel because they have a real interest in the success of their school. They want you to share this enthusiasm. Respect them and make sure you have ideas as to how you can contribute to their school. They want to see that you are a real person with a life outside of school. Share your interests with them. They are also a useful source of information. What do they feel could be improved in their school?

The crucial part of the day is the panels. Here you will experience a variety of questions. Leadership and management, curriculum, pastoral care, recent educational developments are all topics likely to be raised. Again, my key piece of advice here is to try and relate your responses to the school you are applying to. Governors do not generally seek text book answers. They want candidates who have a vision for their school and can provide ideas as to how they are going to achieve this. A sense of humour helps. Governors may be sitting through 5/6 hours of interviews. How will they remember you? If you think you have spoken at great length, try to summarise your answers.

If you get through day 1 then you are likely to face a final panel interview. The first part of this will normally involve a presentation. Often this will focus on your vision for the school. If you are using a PowerPoint don’t put too much on each slide. In a presentation try to pick out the key points. Avoid trying to put too much into the time available. A good idea is to leave the panel with a summary of your presentation at the end. They may look at this whilst waiting for the other candidates. The presentation will be followed by more questions! These may be aimed at areas where the panel feels there needs to be further exploration.

Following the completion of the day it is hoped that you will be offered the post. At the end of the formal interview the panel are likely to ask if you are still a firm candidate for the post. By this time, you should have been able to say yes. If at any stage during the process you feel it is not the job for you my advice is to withdraw from the procedure. This is a two way process. The governors want the best candidate, but the job must be right for you.

If you are offered the job and you accept this is just the start of the process. You need to ensure that you have everything in place for you to do the job properly. That is the title for another article!

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