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Ready for next rung on ladder

Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

I am head of Year 10 in a large 1,500-pupil foundation school. I have been in post for five and a half years and I am now looking to be an assistant head. I have applied for three jobs in the past few months and got one interview. I was wondering if you could give me advice - as a headteacher what would you expect to see in an applicant?

I have been involved in or have organised a number of initiatives: performance review days, new Year 10 parents' evenings, mentored a novice head of year. I also co-ordinate the English A-level team. In September I was asked to take on a "difficult" year group and I have been trying to work much more closely with parents of the "baddies"! I've conducted about 50 interviews and most of the kids are responding.

I have a BEd, an MA in education and a postgraduate certificate from the Open University in leading and managing for effective education.

It would seem that you're perfectly poised for promotion. You have the right qualifications and experience; you don't mention the length of teaching experience in total, but five and a half years in your present post is certainly worth your being considered for assistant headship. The fact that you have been called for interview would suggest that, on paper, you were considered to be a good proposition.

You may be doing everything right, but it is worth checking to see if you can improve your application. Your accompanying statement is the make or break factor and you would be very surprised to see how rapidly many applications are discarded because of a poorly-written, badly-constructed letter.

When heads look for assistants or deputies they want someone who will make an ideal partner, with a competency set which complements their own. There should be a person specification as well as a job spec in the pack for applicants. If you receive one of these, ask a trusted colleague to be brutally frank and assess you against the criteria. If, for example, you discover that you are not perceived as "creative, innovative with exhaustive energy" conclude that that particular job is not yours and don't bother to apply..

If there is no person specification, try creating one. What makes a brilliant assistant head? You might have worked with someone you respect who could provide the template.

Design some descriptive statements and then personalise them. Write "I am" in front of each adjective or "I can" to prefix every skill. Now ask yourself what you have accomplished, achieved or collaborated in which has enabled you to develop that skill, brought out that quality or added to your leadership and management toolkit. Your statement should be built around this.

A head, reading it, looks for evidence. There is nothing we detest more than hearing from an applicant that they are "a people person" or that they are "caring" or any other worthy and self-congratulatory descriptions. What we like to do is to make inferences and deductions from concrete examples of leadership and management activities. We are more interested in finding evidence that our potential partner is a learner, using experience to reflect on and to develop personally, than in the experience itself. We have all come across people who claim extensive experience, but have learnt little from it.

Avoid starting sentences with "...". So not: "I have mentored a newly-qualified teacher" but: "Mentoring a newly-qualified teacher developed some useful observation and feedback skills and helped me reflect on the range of issues facing inexperienced practitioners."

Don't give too much detail; leave your reader wanting to know more and lead the panel to ask the questions you want.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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