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Self-belief opens doors

Gerald Haigh talks to a head faced with her first frantic job search in 20 years. For some years now, in common with many other authorities, Coventry has been gradually amalgamating its separate infant and junior schools into all-through primaries. Until recently the policy was to do this painlessly, as heads retired or moved on.

Last year, financial pressure caused the authority to force the pace, and although many problems were solved with the aid of early retirement deals, there were some casualties, among them Sandra Holland, head for four years of the city's Frederick Bird Infants School.

On March 2 last, Sandra Holland was interviewed, together with her junior school counterpart, for the headship of the combined Frederick Bird Primary School which was to emerge from the authority's programme of amalgamations.

She failed to land the job, and her feelings that evening, as she travelled home, can be imagined. Even the act of recalling the experience for me caused her some emotional difficulty.

"It was a bereavement really. I'd worked so hard and become so involved. I felt a sense of real loss."

But she decided that the important thing was to move forward and attempt to get a headship somewhere else. It was not an easy process. Just the effort involved in writing applications - "which had to be of the highest order" - after a day at work was challenging enough. The care she took, though, is reflected in the fact that she wrote eight applications and was offered eight interviews. "That was a tremendous boost to my confidence."

In some cases, the interview dates clashed, and she had to make the decision which is familiar to most teachers who make multiple job applications as to which one to attend. What criteria did she use? "I looked at my experience and matched it to to the schools - where they were, what size they were."

All the time she was being given excellent support both by her successful junior colleague, her own staff and parents and, notably, by the local education authority. After her initial disappointment, for example, Coventry's chief education officer, Catherine Goodwin, who had been prsent at the fateful interview, gave Sandra a detailed debriefing.

"She met me so quickly - she made it a priority, as did other officers and advisers." From the debriefing, Sandra Holland learned that her interview had not been as bad as she had thought. "I hadn't been satisfied with it, but the CEO picked up so many things that were positive. She also gave me a copy of the main points that I'd made and that was so helpful."

This support continued through subsequent interviews. "I asked what I could do better, and they said I should change nothing, but wait for the right match and believe in myself."

Sandra prepared carefully for her interviews. "I had lists of questions, and of points I wanted to make."

This preparation was doubly important because she had never, throughout her 20-year career, been faced with quite the same challenge.

"I'd been one of those lucky people who got the job I wanted on first or second application. I'd never really had to sweat about it before, and now I was up against it. By the end of August I'd have been redundant."

At her fifth interview, however, she was successful, and she is now into her first term as head of Forest Lodge Primary School in Leicester. She speaks warmly about her new school, and its teachers, pupils and parents. "All the experience I gained in Coventry has been so helpful, and now I've certainly enjoyed my first weeks at Forest Lodge."

Her message to colleagues who find themselves in the position she was in last spring - and there will be more and more over the next few years - is, "Hang on there; believe in yourself and keep going, and you'll find something that suits you and that you can be happy with."

Turning Points is our regular column focusing on key points in career development. If you want to share an important decision or influence in your professional life, write to Bob Doe, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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