Between the lines

8th April 2005 at 01:00
It doesn't take the skill of a great detective to obtain crucial information on your new school. Jan Murray looks at ways for you to get the low-down, not let down

With many headteachers facing recruitment and retention difficulties, the job market has never been more competitive for many employees. In their quest to recruit the best staff, headteachers have to ensure job adverts pack a good punch. But don't be seduced by the language of advertising.

"Enthusiastic teacher" could translate into "don't expect to have a life outside school". "State of the art buildings" may have replaced those destroyed in an arson attack. And that "pleasant semi-rural area" may equal no amenities and unaffordable housing. So before you start filling in the application form, find out as much as you can about the school behind the advert.

The internet is an invaluable resource for job hunters. The Ofsted site contains reports on nurseries, schools, colleges, teacher training providers and local education authorities. A school's Ofsted report should provide you with useful information on teaching and learning, student behaviour and attainment, and relationships with parents and the wider community. It is, of course, worth bearing in mind that an Ofsted report may reflect the school on its "best behaviour". And do look carefully at when the report was published. It may be several years since the school was last inspected and they can change dramatically, for better or worse, in a relatively short space of time.

The majority of schools now have websites, which can speak volumes. As Emma Stevens, head of drama and expressive arts at Quintin Kynaston school in St Johns Wood, north London, puts it: "After the Ofsted report, the school website would definitely be my first port of call. The information on the school web can give a reflection of the school's curriculum, staffing, schemes of work, ethos and extracurricular activities."

A site which includes up-to-date information about the school, including curriculum content, staff, students, upcoming events and other news, suggests a caring organisation that communicates well with staff, parents, students and the wider community.

School league tables can also be a useful tool, providing they are considered in context. Taken on face value, a school with just 40 per cent of students gaining five or more GCSE grades A*-C could be viewed as low-achieving. However, if two years ago that figure stood at 17 per cent, you could be looking at a dynamic school which is going places, so rather than looking at isolated figures, it is a good idea to track league tables over a number of years if the school is one of the 735 listed in the Good Schools Guide.

Prospective applicants who want to dig deeper can Google the headteacher.

Typing the head's name into this search engine can elicit all kinds of interesting information, such as where they worked previously and any significant successes or failures.

Julia Upton, head of mathematics at King Edward VI school in Suffolk, recommends scouring local newspapers for coverage of the school. This can unearth any negative publicity, such as poor exam results, staffing issues or poor student behaviour. Conversely, it can highlight the strengths of a successful school. "A school which is keen to promote its extracurricular activities and successes is a promising sign," she says.

Most schools are more than happy to accommodate informal visits for prospective job applicants. If not, you may need to ask yourself if they have something to hide. If you are able, ask for a tour of the school, preferably by students, who should give you a warts and all view of their school. A well maintained building with recent examples of students' work on display is a sign that staff and students are valued. If possible, spend time in the staffroom, preferably during a break or at lunch time. A quick 10-minutes over coffee should be enough to detect any frosty atmospheres and ascertain whether staff feel happy in their work. If you have the opportunity to talk to senior members, ask them to tell you about the school's weaknesses. A good school is likely to be open and self-critical, where appropriate. If time allows, ask to observe a lesson or two, which can be a good indicator of the school's approach to teaching and learning.

And don't forget to take in the surrounding area, which can tell you just as much, if not more, than the school itself. Geoff Wybar, head at Gravesend grammar school in Kent, says: "Stand at the bus stop with the students, visit the local newsagent and ask them about the school. Do a reconnaissance of the site to identify where the smokers are and talk to them about their school."

"Phone local estate agents and ask about schools in the area," adds Midlands-based education consultant Frances Child. "Hang around outside the school gates at the beginning and end of the day or at lunch time. Talk to local sweet shop and chip shop owners, to parents if you can."

It is also a good idea to draw on personal contacts where possible. As primary school teacher Jane Higgenbottom, who is currently teaching in the United States, recalls: "When I was applying for my first job, I was in the Manchester 'pool' and got a call from a headteacher at an inner-city Catholic primary.

"I agreed to an interview but wanted to know more before I went. I called my mum, who was a school nurse for about 10 years and knew everybody. I told her the name of the school, the head and so on. Twenty minutes later, she called me back with the low-down on the head, his age, who he was married to, where he got married, the name of his deputy (I was at school with her children).

"When asked how she'd found out so much so fast, I was warned, 'Never doubt the knowledge of the Catholic mothers mafia'."

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