How to get a head

25th November 2011 at 00:00

Well, the deed is done. At the end of term I'll be retiring, and we've been looking for a new headteacher. Not that many people want to be one, it seems, because we've had to advertise twice. I'm not surprised. Headship these days is demanding and test-driven and people who can't cope are swiftly made aware that they should think of moving on.

Simply winning a headship today demands the successful navigation of a variety of tasks and courses. A qualification from the National College needs to be obtained - no mean feat in itself. And then, when you've found a school you like, you need to negotiate and pass the tasks set by the governing body, usually once the incumbent head and staff have subjected you to a grilling after innocently inviting you for a look around the school and a friendly staffroom coffee.

In our case, the governors set the shortlisted candidates some rigorous tasks. Firstly, three written questions, for which a computer couldn't be used, so no chance of mistakes being flagged up by a spellchecker.

One question was very testing: imagine a classroom ceiling is being repaired by an unapproved tradesman and some plasterwork falls down and concusses a child. The parents want to know what's going on, the local authority is breathing heavily, and the press has just been alerted. Write a letter to the parents allaying their fears.

Next, the candidates had to take an assembly for an audience of classes from both key stages. Maintaining the interest of different age groups was the tricky bit.

Then the candidates had to teach an hour-long lesson to a Year 5 class, following up the assembly theme. Very few schools set this as part of their interview procedure, because headship is now seen as a management role and not a teaching one. This, in my view, is daft. If you're not a first-class teacher, how can you possibly lead staff effectively? How can you gain their respect without an intimate knowledge of what the job entails?

Then, the final hurdle: an interview with a hand-picked selection of governors, prefaced by a presentation from the candidate about their vision for the school. What do they feel primary education is all about? What could they bring to the school? How could they build on an already very successful primary school and what would it look like in a year's time?

Although I played no part in the interviewing or task-setting process, my role was crucial. Our school is a thriving and happy one and the teachers were concerned about the impending change of leader. I invited every applicant to spend a morning with us. I took them around, visited every classroom and introduced them to lots of children.

Interestingly, it was easy to spot the people I guessed wouldn't make the shortlist: the one who didn't smile at all, the lady who rattled off all the things she had done in her career and barely seemed to look at the school, the man who told me how he'd taken a school from mediocre to outstanding by "moving on" lots of teachers ...

Finally, we were down to two, both of whom stayed the course and both immensely capable. I've no idea what swung the interview but, asked about his vision for the school, it could have been the photo one candidate showed the panel. Of a baby, and some bathwater ...

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email

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