Pointers for a good interview

9th February 2001 at 00:00
It's a job seeker's market, so don't sell yourself short. Find the best school for you by asking questions - but in the right way. Jill Parkin passes on some advice.

It is the end of the interview and the headteacher asks whether you have any questions. You come out with an innocuous query you have been rehearsing, one which doesn't compromise you and is likely to show the school in a good light so that you can appear impressed.

But should you be so easily satisfied, in what has become a sellers' market? Demand for teachers greatly outstrips supply. The shortage doesn't mean you can name your price but does mean you can afford to be choosy, especially if yours is a shortage subject. Instead of being cravenly grateful for the prospect of a job, make sure the school measures up by running through this mental checklist.

"No one wants a fusspot who produces a list of questions on a postcard at the end of the interview," says Michael Smith, senior consultant with the Secondary Heads Association's management and professional services. "But make sure you find out what you need to know during the course of the introductory session, tour of the school and interview", such as: * The vision. What are the values of the school? You should find out what part it plays in the community and its ethos.

* The future. What is happening to the school roll? If it is expanding, there might be promotion possibilities. If it is shrinking rapidly, the school might be heading for a merger in a couple of years; redundancy could be on the cards.

* Your career. What are the prospects for professional development? The school might have links with higher education which would allow you to do classroom-based research or to study for a further degree.

* The inspector. What is the school doing to meet the recommendations in the last report by the Office for Standards in Education? You should have read the report on the web already.

* The next check-up. When is OFSTED coming again? You may not want to go through an inspection just a term or two after starting, especially if the last report highlighted shortcomings in your subject.

* Spinning the tables. Are the exam results a fair reflection of the intake? If the results are bad, you might want to ask ifthere were exceptional circumstances. If they are through the roof, you might like to check for Gradgrindian tendencies.

* The mixture. How are the children grouped for your subject? You need to know whether you will be teaching sets, mixed ability groups or fast-trackers and what your range of work will be. Ask about the school's special needs (including gifted) policy and whether it focuses on in-class or withdrawal.

* Period pains. What is the pupil contact ratio? The pressure to keep class sizes down in primary schools has cut secondary funding, the SHA says, and you may find your expected 35:5 teaching and non-teaching periods ratio is in fact 36:4.

* Paper pressure. What are the class sizes? This is particularly important at A-level in essay-heavy subjects. Nineteen scripts on irony in Jane Austen eat into your non-contact time.

* Purse strings. How well resourced is your subject? If there is little technical support, someone else always has the key to the photocopier and the classroom blinds are so torn that using an overhead projector is impossible, you may not be very happy. Look for signs of spending or tightfistedness.

* The computer age. What are the information and communications technology facilities? You need to know. Some schools issue personal laptopsI * The parents. What is the school's relationship with the pupils' parents? Find out whether the head is accessible for three-way parental chats.

* The trickiest one. What role does the head play in school discipline? You don't want to give the impression you can't control a class but you need to find out if the head will be supportive and what pupil sanctions there are.

With luck, some of the topics will be covered in a pre-interview discussion group which introduces candidates to the school.

Use your time with members of your subject department to find out if the job will suit you and to look at the facilities.

It is a good idea to take your list of questions with you, but not so good to produce it in front of the interview panel. "You can find out a lot by asking a general question about school development and what is on the agenda," says Mr Smith.

Then, of course, if the job is still not for you, you can take your list elsewhere.

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