I thought that went rather well...

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
You've done it; you've made the final interview for the senior post you've always wanted. What now? Most of all, suggests David Bell, think before you speak.

So, you've battled your way through the application form, the long-listing stage and all the other paraphernalia of the selection process. Now, it is the formal interview for the headship or senior post you covet.

In the old days, the interview would have been the be-all and end-all of the selection process. Now, much more happens, so does it really matter?

More often than not, it will be the last stage and thus freshest in the mind of governors when they come to make their decision. By being at the end of process, it also allows governors to crystallise some of the major themes they have been pursuing and put them to all the candidates in a similar way.

Its formality also allows governors to compare different candidates' responses to the same questions. It also illustrates the way in which candidates handle the pressure of a formal interview.

For a candidate, it may seem that there is little to add after a long, exhausting and stressful few days. There is a danger of assuming that everything has been said and that answers given at the formal interview can be less well developed. This can come across as dangerously complacent - it is essential you stay on your toes to the very end.

So, how do you handle the formal interview? In the first place, take your time. Too many candidates, probably due to nerves, do not listen carefully enough to the questions. Pause for a moment or so to consider your response. Do not be afraid to seek clarification about a question - but not every time or you will come across as lacking sharpness.

Think about two or three points you wish to make. Everyone has seen candidates engulf themselves in their own rhetoric. Worse still is to see the dawning look of horror on a candidate's face as it becomes apparent that he or she has completely for-gotten the question.

In a revealing analysis of the last US presidential election debates, one commentator suggested that Bob Dole gave the more comprehensive answers. The problem was that they were so convoluted and technical that the audience had switched off long before he got to the end. That sounds like many a headship candidate who forgets that he is talking to a lay audience and needs to be clear and jargon-clear.

The other side of the story from the presidential elections is also instructive. President Clinton succeeded in the debates because he often cited two or three practical measures - easily understood by the audience - in response to a question.

Governors will often observe that candidates gave a thorough answer but they did not actually say what they were going to do! So, if you are asked about behaviour mangagement, the theory provides a backdrop to your answer and can form the introduction. But governors will be more interested in what practical steps you would take to improve discipline.

Almost inevitably, candidates will find themselves asked to comment on the school itself. In fact, it would be a foolish candidate who was not prepared to hazard an opinion about what he or she has seen. Getting the tone of such a comment right requires sensitivity and some awareness of what governors are looking for.

Uncritical acceptance of, and praise for, everything you have seen may make governors feel good for a moment or two. But when the warm glow has worn off, they may ask if they really want a candidate who has no critical faculties. Equally, telling it exactly as you see it, no holds barred, may indicate a bold and adventurous style. It may also illustrate a reckless and insensitive streak that will cause more problems in the long term.

So, the secret is to temper your criticisms with the observation that you do not necessarily have the full picture. However, and more importantly, you have some potential solutions in mind which could be helpful.

And so you get to the end and are asked if there are any questions you have to put to the panel. Opinions differ about whether you should use this opportunity. On balance, you are better to keep mum; really, you should have had plenty of time to ask your questions before arriving at the final moments of the process.

One final piece of advice, whatever you do, avoid negotiating your pay during the formal interview. It has been known to happen. Needless to say, the candidate was not offered the post.

David Bell is chief education officer of Newcastle City Council

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