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10 ways to get ahead(ship)

As 2018 begins, so does the window for headteacher recruitment. Here, one experienced leader offers his advice for hopeful headteachers

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As 2018 begins, so does the window for headteacher recruitment. Here, one experienced leader offers his advice for hopeful headteachers

With the New Year now upon us – and with the traditional window for headteacher recruitment just beginning – some of you will be considering whether now is the time to take the leap and apply for a headship, or even your first leadership post prior to headship. You should. School leadership is brilliant and despite what the doom-mongers across social media tell you, it’s the best job in education.

Here are my top tips for applying for a headship, or any other leadership role:

1. "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want"

Before you start applying for a headship, ask yourself: "Do I really want this?".

A headship is unlike any other role in a school – which makes it both amazing and terrifying in equal measure. Being the boss gives you fantastic power and influence to create your vision of outstanding education, changing the lives of literally hundreds of children for the better. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Put simply, everything that happens in the school is ultimately your responsibility. 

I’ve come across a number of headteachers who only became heads because someone else wanted them to. Whether it be a cheerleading LA officer, a multi-academy trust CEO or your current boss, the only reason to become a headteacher is because you want to.

2Decide what sort of school you want to lead

Unless you’re willing to uproot yourself and your family to relocate to the area which contains your perfect job, chances are you’ll have only some choice in the schools that are looking for a new head in the area and time frame which works for you. But, it does no harm to list your essentials and desirables so that you can assess a potential school against these. A school in difficulty and on their fourth head in three years might make your name – it’s a gamble I’ve successfully taken twice now – but the risks are high and you have to consider how high you want the stakes to be.

I only pick schools where I know I can succeed. Be brave by all means – our struggling schools need exceptional people who are willing to take a risk and lead them. However, leaders in such schools have to show impact and improvement quickly if they are to keep their jobs – weigh up what level of risk you wish to accept.

3. Know the school better than any other candidate 

Before you even think about visiting the school you must find out everything about it. Read the last inspection reports, look through all the data available from the DfE and on their website and read their SDP and minutes of governor meetings. This sleuthing will start to identify themes about the school – both in terms of strengths and current weaknesses. The school community will want their new headteacher to maintain and develop the strengths while tackling the weaknesses, so look for the clues in the information available.

You want to be able to answer a simple question: "Why does this school exist?" 

In settled schools, this will be immediately clear as all the messages regarding vision, values and strategy will align. However, in schools which have a less clear vision – which in my view makes them a more interesting prospect – the job here is not simply to identify an existing vision, but to untangle mixed messages and to start to identify what the community wants and needs from this school. Chances are you’ll be a bit in the dark at this point as the information might be patchy and you certainly don’t want to jump to conclusions. Read every scrap of information, as well as searching for media reports about the school, to give you an outline of the setting which you hope to lead.

The person specification is also key. Here, try to look beyond the simple list of "stuff the governors' want" to what is implied. The governors will have spent a lot of time on this, so look for the subtlety and nuance between the lines.

4. Plan a visit 

A visit to the school is as much a part of the interview as the interview itself – so you need to be clear as to what messages you wish to send out. And these messages will be in the form of both verbal and non-verbal communication.

Verbal communication is reasonably easy. Once you’ve decided what the school is looking for, you need to identify three to four themes. These are a mixture of what the person spec. tells you the school wants and what your reading suggests are priorities for the school, which you weave into conversations as they occur. Never be too obvious. I play "buzzword bingo" whenever NQTs look around the school, because they all clamour to ask a blindingly obvious question only to illustrate that they have read some document relating to our school.

Ask questions that you want to know the answers to: 

“What do the pupils, parents and staff value most about this school?”

“I notice from the SDP that X is a priority – why is this?”

“What are the school’s current most pressing priorities?”

Listen carefully to what you are told. Then, and only then, respond in a way that shows that you know – and care – about the school.

Think about who is showing you around and never pass judgement on the current headteacher – even if they have left under a cloud. You are a guest in this school and must treat it with respect.

Then there is the non-verbal communication. It is hard to offer advice here as you can only be yourself. Be under no illusion, every gesture and facial expression will be judged. How you treat the cleaner who lets you in the building after the school has closed will say as much to the school community as your tete-a-tete with the chair of governors. I have seen candidates completely blank members of staff in the school that they are visiting because they don’t think that they are important enough to ingratiate.

5.  Decide on your key messages 

Now you must settle on three key messages which you will repeat throughout your letter of application, interview tasks and interview itself. 

These should encapsulate a mixture of your core beliefs, the unique circumstances of the school, and the main priorities which it currently faces.

In the past mine were things such as:

  1. Effort leads to success – and everyone can succeed if they try hard. The school had very low attainment at the time and expectations needed to rise.
  2. Pupils behave well when the rules and expectations are clear. The school documents – including the parent survey – and visit suggested that the school was struggling with poor behaviour.
  3. The curriculum should be magical. The school had expressed a desire to improve their curriculum.


The key points which you will want to make will depend on the school which you wish to lead but having a clear message, which you repeat constantly, shows that your thinking is clear and you are able to communicate your vision.

6. Write a love letter to the school 

Your letter of application is a very important document. It is the opening act in your bid to become the school’s new headteacher and as such needs to be a carefully crafted love letter to the school community.

These are the things which you must consider:

  • Your letter must be unique to the school. Just as you wouldn’t use an old love letter to woo a new partner by changing the name at the top, nor should you try and send out a standard letter for all headship, or indeed any leadership application.
  • Be bold from the outset. Start with a statement that aims to convey in one short sentence what you believe education should be. Choose this carefully, because a generic leadership quote from Google won't work. Decide what you truly believe education should be and articulate this belief.
  • Address all the qualities in the person specification. This is blindingly obvious, but still, something that some forget. The person spec. will provide the essential structure for your letter.
  • Give examples. If the person spec. asks for a "strong understanding of what makes effective teaching and learning" you need to do more than just say that you have and give a quote from a book you read recently. You need to articulate concrete examples of how you improved teaching and learning in your current role.
  • Be specific about impact. I once interviewed a deputy headteacher who made rather grand claims about their leadership of teaching and learning. However, when pressed about the impact of these grand initiatives they couldn’t identify any. Preempt this "so what?" question with specific information about how your initiative led to better outcomes for children.
  • Be canny about digital media. Whilst governors may print out your letter to read, they will probably first have a digital copy emailed to them. Embedding hyperlinks to reports, newspaper articles or even blogs that you’ve been involved in gives you the opportunity to slip in some extra detail.
  • Keep it to two pages. Rambling on for four pages shows that you are unable to be disciplined with your thinking. Make every word count. 

7. Preparing for the interview 

Read the information sent to you by the governors very carefully and look for themes that they are looking to explore. Don’t be afraid to ring and ask for more information about any of the tasks they've set. This shows that you are thinking proactively and preempting problems.

There is likely to be a range of the following pre-prepared tasks:

  • School Assembly – particularly important in a church school. This will aim to show how well you can connect with the children and convey particular messages in an interesting and engaging way. Try to find out about what the children have been learning about in assemblies that term and, if appropriate, weave key school values into the assembly. Try to show something about your character and your values and how they align with those of the school.
  • Presentation to staff, governors and/or the panel. Sometimes this is given to you on the day of the interview to see how you can prepare something under a time pressure, but if you do have the luxury of forewarning, try to reference the key themes and challenges faced by the school – showing how you’re the person with the experience and skills to address these.

There will also be a range of tasks which you are given on the day, which may include:

  • Data task. Usually of an anonymous school with similar data. Here you will be given a very limited amount of time to analyse the data to draw conclusions and make recommendations. To prepare for this, make sure that you understand the new Inspection Dashboard Summary Report (IDSR) used by Ofsted and Assessing Student Progress (ASP) which the DfE publishes. Bloggers such as James Pembroke produce some good guides to these.
  • Group discussion. This could be about anything. Make sure that you are aware of all the major education stories in the news at the moment, along with any recent guidance or initiatives released by the DfE.
  • Letter to parents or a newsletter introducing yourself. This is another opportunity to repeat your key messages and articulate what your leadership will look like. As with your letter of application, be bold and optimistic, conveying hope and energy.
  • Lesson observation. A favourite task is often to ask candidates to observe a lesson which may be deliberately bad. The panel will be watching not just to whether you can deliver the feedback honestly, but also how clear you are and how respectful you are to a member of staff who has just taught a poor lesson.
  • Meeting with the SLT. You need to show yourself as confident, showing that you can take the lead. However, you’ve got to show that you respect the school’s existing leadership team and are willing to listen.

8. The interview day(s)

Ninety-nine per cent of your preparation should already be done, so this is really about showing the school who you are. The way you interact with everyone you meet will be judged and scrutinised, so think carefully about how you want to come across.

Smile – a lot. The staff will be wary of a new boss who might turn out to be a tyrant. The governors and panel will be nervous about making the right decision. In short, everyone will be on edge. This is your opportunity to show leadership by putting people at ease. Don’t be casual or appear arrogant, but do try to be warm and receptive.

Talk to everyone. When you're not involved in an interview task, find time to interact with staff, and not just people who you feel are important to the interview. Chat to the office staff, the caretaker and the teaching assistants. Ask them about their school and what they like about it. Ask them what they are hoping for in a new headteacher. Listen to what they tell you.

Do some colouring with reception. I believe that I got my current headship because I went and sat on the floor in the reception class in a three-piece suit and did some colouring with 4-year-olds. If the school allows it, spend your free time helping out in one of the classes – after checking that the teacher is happy to let you do this.

9. The interview itself

In almost every appointment panel I’ve been involved with, the interview itself only really confirms what the panel are already thinking. All of the tasks and your informal interactions throughout the process will mean that in most cases the panel has a very strong idea about who they wish to appoint.

There is no point trying to practise interview questions or prep answers. Show your passion and enthusiasm and reiterate the key messages which you’ve been making throughout when they apply to particular questions. Reiterate the examples of impact given in your letter of application as you can’t assume that the panel will remember this detail.

Finally, remember that the panel will be a mixture of governors – who will also be nervous about getting it right, an LA or academy officer – who will be very experienced in headteacher recruitment and a staff governor who, again, probably has never done this before. Help them feel at ease by showing that you are confident and relaxed – even if you don’t feel it inside.

10. Walk away if you need to

“You seem a bit flat,” commented my wife as I stared into my cornflakes, “you don’t seem that excited.” 

I was about to be interviewed for a headship where I was – according to the LA advisor who’d pushed me to apply and was on the panel – the firm favourite.  It was a big school and a good salary. I had been supporting the deputy head teacher for six months after their headteacher unexpectedly resigned and I knew and liked the staff. It seemed perfect.

But I wasn’t excited. I was just tired. 

I had spent three years pulling my failing school back from the brink. Fewer than six months after the Ofsted report that confirmed our success, I was throwing myself back into another failing school. 

“I’ll decide what to do on the way there,” I said. 

And I did. Upon my arrival, I asked to see the chair of governors and withdrew my application. She looked horrified – and more than a bit annoyed. Then I drove back to my school as my mobile rang repeatedly with calls from an even more annoyed LA officer. 

As I said at the beginning, headship is not something which you can do halfheartedly. If at any point in the appointment process – including during the interview – you decide it’s not for you then walk away. 

As it happens, a year later I found myself back in the same school having re-applied for the same headship, which wasn’t filled during the interview I walked out on.  I’ve been headteacher at that fabulous school for the past seven years and couldn’t be happier.

Maybe 2018 will be the year you make the leap. If it’s truly what you want, I guarantee you’ll never regret it.

Simon Botten is the headteacher at Blackhorse Primary School in Bristol. He tweets @southgloshead and blogs here

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