Go all out in the race for the top job

Getting shortlisted for a headship or promoted post is probably the hardest part of the selection process as it is almost impossible to bring your personality to bear except through a form or a letter. But once selected for interview, you have a real opportunity to influence the outcome.

Whether you like it or not, the evaluation starts the moment you enter the school. First impressions are vital. Are you smartly dressed, indicating that you take the job seriously and are treating your hosts with respect? Do you present a friendly, relaxed and confident face to the administrative staff? The legendary influence of such people is perhaps a little exaggerated, but do not underestimate their position. However informally, it is likely that any views they hold will be solicited by governors, teachers and others working in the school.

Then there is the first meeting with the chair of governors, other governors, staff of the school and your fellow candidates. Do you establish eye contact? Is your handshake firm? You must be able to engage in small talk, which will help put you and the people you meet at ease. But you must be careful not to hog the conversation. And avoid looking over the shoulder of the person you are speaking to, to see what else is happening in the room.

It may become incredibly tire-some but you have to be able to engage all sorts of people in conversation. Some candidates slink into the corner and never speak to anyone. Do not be surprised if they are not appointed. Governors will inevitably have some questions in their minds about candidates who lack confidence and are unable to engage people in conversation. They will also be suspicious of a candidate who talks to the chair of governors or the present headteacher or the chief education officer but treats everyone else with lofty disdain.

There is always a balance to be struck between asking too many questions and too few, and between talking exclusively about yourself and giving nothing away. Clearly, it is helpful to show a degree of curiosity, but indiscriminate questioning can suggest a lack of preparation. Equally, governors will want to know something about each candidate but will be suspicious of anyone who wants to talk only about him or herself.

Then there is the inevitable walk around the school. This may be for your benefit. Equally, it may be designed to test the candidates' sensitivity to a whole range of issues. It is important that you speak to teachers and pupils. More than anything else, this is likely to be commented on later by the teachers.

It does not mean engaging teachers in lengthy discussions. They may be as nervous as the candidates, particularly if they think they may be speaking to their future headteacher. They will also be anxious to maintain the flow of their lesson, as well as order in the room. But a positive comment about some work goes a long way.

The same is true of pupils. More and more schools make use of pupils, either to show candidates around or, in secondary schools, to talk to candidates. It should be obvious for candidates for senior posts, but treat them with respect. Pupils' perceptions are extremely interestin g and can offer a different dimension to your understanding of the school. The smart candidate will use the knowledge gained from pupils to inform his or her answers during the more formal part of the selection process.

It is a lot to remember in a walk around the school. But avoid delaying the process by failing to keep up with the group. You may seem so dedicated to teachers and pupils that you cannot prise yourself away from them. More likely, it will appear irritating and self-indulgent as you leave everyone else hanging around while the timetable starts to slip.

Throughout the selection process, avoid being too assertive. Many candidates have frightened governors to such an extent that they have lost the job.

Governors do not want to appoint someone who is going to intimidate them and make them feel they have nothing to contribute to the life and work of the school. On the other hand, no one wants a candidate with no personality, and who is almost anonymous.

Perhaps life was much simpler when senior appointments consisted of a 20-minute interview at County Hall. But nobody would suggest this is an adequate way to identify the right candidate for a job, particularly one as important as a headship. So, if you want one of the top jobs in a school, you must be prepared to subject yourself to the ups and downs of small talk, school tours and searching questions.

David Bell is Chief Education Officer of Newcastle City Council

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