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Make your mark

Thinking of leaving school? Forging friendships may not be on the agenda, but influencing people is. Martin Whittaker looks at what it takes to join the advisers

Moving from being a headteacher or a senior manager in a school to an adviser with a local education authority can be more of a leap of faith than a career step.

Apart from the requirements of skills and experience, making the transition from running a school to becoming a "critical friend" to others involves a big culture change.

"The difficulty is that if you're a head, you've been used to being able to manage the organisation within which you work," says Judith Hibbert, professional development officer of the National Association of Educational Inspectors Advisers and Consultants.

"When you move to a local authority, you're not managing the whole of that organisation and you may not be managing any people. So you have to work through influencing, persuading, working with people you can't direct."

In a recent Employers' Organisation for local government survey, three-quarters of local education authorities reported recruitment difficulties, mainly among main grade advisers or inspectors. This is partly because there is a shortage of people with the qualities and experience to do the job, says the advisers' association.

So what are those qualities? National Standards for School Improvement Professionals launched by the Department for Education and Skills in 2003 sets out a broad range of requirements to succeed at the job. You have to have the ability to support and challenge schools, groups and individuals; you have to know how to apply and develop a wide range of strategies for schools with different characteristics and in different contexts.

The adviser's role demands high inter-personal, communication and leadership skills. You have to be able to relate well to others, to work well in teams and to show the ability to influence and persuade others to take action.

And you have to have a broad knowledge - ranging from how classroom observation, monitoring and evaluation can help raise standards, to how to use and apply performance data to categorise schools, or to identify strengths and weaknesses among groups of pupils within a school.

And you need to be able to stand up to senior managers and governors, hold them accountable for action and to challenge poor practice.

Then there's the bigger picture - you have to keep pace with educational change, knowing the statutory framework and policies within which schools operate, from workforce remodelling to implementation of the Children Act.

The job application process will vary depending on which local education authority you're in. Some LEAs may set applicants tasks to test their skills and attributes, knowledge and understanding, or you may have to do a presentation.

There will be an interview with headteachers, or sometimes with a mixture of heads and local education authority officers. You may also visit schools to meet the headteacher and senior management team.

"In a sense, it's trying to find out whether they have the knowledge and understanding of what heads are working in, together with the skills to influence and relate effectively to other people," says Judith Hibbert.

"This is largely what the school improvement professional's role is about.

You're an influencer as opposed to a manager."

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