How to impress in your headteacher interview

Taking on the role of headteacher is a huge responsibility, so naturally the interview process is a rigorous one. So how do you make the cut and give yourself the best chance of landing the job? Here are nine expert tips to help make your interview a success

Tes Editorial

Careers Advice article image

1. Know your school

If you’re applying to lead the whole school, then you have to know everything you can about that school. “Do your research,” says Robyn Ellis, from The Future Leaders Trust. “Ask your professional network, look online, look at Ofsted reports and talk to people in local shops about how the school is perceived.”

“Making sure the school is right for you is important because, ultimately, this isn’t just a career move, it’s a decision that gives you influence over the lives of hundreds of young people.”

2. Listen to the question

"One of the biggest mistakes would-be headteachers make at interview is not answering the question they’ve been asked," says Caroline Jenkins, chair of governors at Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol.

This sets alarm bells ringing for her because “being asked questions is something that will happen to them on a daily basis and it’s a clear demonstration of their listening skills”.

3. Don’t let your guard down

On interview day, every interaction is an opportunity and also a risk, so don’t let your nerves get the better of you,” notes Ellis.

“There’s one case I know of where someone was invited to leave the interview process because they hadn’t been polite to the receptionist when they arrived.”

Chris Hildrew, headteacher of Churchill Academy in North Somerset, also warns candidates to be ready for tough questions during the interview. “The most challenging question I was asked was about moral compass and ethical leadership,” Hildrew says. “I was the deputy at a neighbouring school, so they asked me whether I would aggressively market the school to primaries on the border between the schools to ‘poach’ students from my previous catchment.” 

4. Lead by example

It’s good to root answers to questions in examples of what you’ve done. So, if they say, ‘Tell us about your vision for primary education’, talk about that and say ‘What I’ve done previously to achieve that was..’,” advises James Bowen, director of the union for middle leaders, NAHT Edge.

“You don’t want to come across as someone who’s read all the books but hasn’t put any of it into practice. It’s about showing the things you’re good at rather than telling.”

5. Talk strategy

As a headteacher, you’ll need to work on high-level strategy, so make sure you show you’re ready for that step.

“If you’ve been on a board of governors or worked with link governors in your school, mention it,” notes founder and director of DLB Leadership Associates and experienced former headteacher Deborah Leek-Bailey.

“The interview panel will see that you’ve already been trusted to work at that senior strategic level.”

6. Forget perfection

Nobody likes being asked about their weaknesses, but giving a predictable answer won’t impress anyone. “If you’re asked about your weaknesses, avoid clichés such as ‘I’m a perfectionist’,” suggests John Lees, author of How to Get a Job You Love.

Instead he suggests picking on an area that you need to develop that’s not too damaging (even better if you’re already working on it). “Good leaders are self-aware,” he stresses.

7. Be tactful

In a bid to impress, you might be tempted to talk about how you’d really shake things up if you were to get the job. However, it is wise to remember who your audience is. “It’s a mistake some people have made going in and saying, ‘this is terrible, we need to do all of this stuff differently’,” says Ellis.

“Be aware that your stakeholders really care about the school and there will be bright spots in it. So, it’s about finding a balance – being able to deliver difficult messages and also building on the expertise that is there.”

8. Don’t panic about presenting

It’s not unusual to be given a short amount of time to prepare a presentation. You might even be asked to present on information you’ve only just been given that day.

Hildrew was asked to make multiple presentations to staff on his first day of interview. “After a day of panel interviews, each candidate had to give a presentation to the full staff about what they had learned about the school and what their priorities would be if they were appointed as headteacher.”

If this happens, it is important that you don’t switch into panic mode. “The mistake most people make is thinking it’s all about content and it really isn’t. They’re really not listening to the content in that much depth,” suggests Lees.

“The presentation is more like a screen test. They’re thinking, ‘Does this person look and sound like someone I can imagine standing up in front of 600 kids in assembly or at a difficult parent/governor meeting?’”

9. Explore the grounds

“If you have any down time during the interview days, go out and walk around the school, talking to staff and students. If a candidate didn’t mingle, I would feel they weren’t really a serious contender because I don’t see how they could be sure the school was the right one for them,” notes Jenkins.

“It’s also nice if they can say at interview, for example, ‘Your head of English told me...’ – it shows they have taken a real interest.”

10. Do your reading

Before you go in to the interview, make sure you're up to date on the latest education news. It would be a good idea to listen to the Tes Podcast, and read the latest safeguarding information, as well as being up to date on the most recent news from Ofsted.

Find more advice on how to shape your career in leadership.