Ramblers on a trip to nowhere

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Too many aspiring heads spoil their chances by poor application forms says David Bell

Chief education officers have a unique perspective on applications from prospective headteachers. The 1996 Education Act gives CEOs a personal right of representation during selection for deputy headteachers and headteachers. In many cases, this responsibility is delegated to other officers. However, many CEOs exercise their right personally given the critical importance of such appointments.

Clearly, there are a number of important issues around the appointment of the next generation of headteachers. For example, in some areas, very few suitable candidates come forward. The training of aspiring headteachers is another important point although this may be addressed more systematically through the National Professional Qualification for Headship.

Yet one common theme still predominates and that is the poor quality of many application forms submitted by prospective headteachers. It seems such a basic point given the seniority of the post being applied for. Yet, too many candidates rule themselves out by what they write. So, if you are applying for a headship, put yourself in the shoes of the reader.

There is still an alarming number of candidates who fail to follow basic instructions. If it is made clear that an application form should be used, it is quite perverse to submit a CV. Equally, if a supporting statement or letter is limited to 800 words, it does not create a favourable impression if an essay three times that length is submitted. Also, and why must this point be made, check, check and check again spelling and grammar. It really matters and few, if any, governors ignore howlers.

Too few candidates study a person specification if it is provided. Between them, your application form and letter should touch all the key points. A check list is hardly inspiring. But, plan how you can cover all the key points in a way that deals with the person specification. Such an approach also has psychological value as you are able to repeat back to governors the very characteristics they are looking for.

Do not jump to the wrong conclusions on the basis of the information provided by the school. Seek further information if it will help focus your application. But avoid the temptation to phone up and ask indiscriminately for information if you have no purpose for it.

A potted history of life in your present school may be interesting but is hardly relevant to the governors of another school. Certainly, examples can be drawn from current or previous experience to highlight how an issue might be addressed in another school. However, it is just lazy to list all the things that you are doing presently and expect governors to make the necessary connections to their own school.

Many candidates write a generic application form and supporting letter. Even when detailed information for candidates is supplied, too many people pay little or no attention to it. Governing bodies are increasingly ruthless with such forms. Their rationale is that if a candidate cannot be bothered to set their mind to the particular issues of the school, then why should the governors bother to call them for interview. This is a persuasive argument to anyone advising a governing body.

So, avoid writing an ill focused or rambling supporting statement or letter. As well as relating your letter to the particular circumstances of the school being applied for, it is essential to decide in advance on three or four central points which need to be made. As well as illustrating a sharp and focused mind, they demonstrate a candidate's capacity to separate the essential from the merely interesting. Too many forms and letters end up covering trivial issues which hardly demonstrate a leadership capacity.

Do not ramble. Brevity rules. Even if there is no restriction on the length of a supporting statement or letter, anything beyond three sides of A4 is probably too much. Even if a school receives only 20 applications for a job, it is not much fun ploughing through long-winded expositions on the history and theory of education.

For all the person specifications and selection criteria in the world, so much still comes down to early impressions. You will never get past the door of a school unless you create a good impression in the application form.

Yes, there may be a governing body somewhere which is prepared to take an off-beat view of all the points made in this article and you may still end up with an interview. But as governing bodies become increasingly choosy about the appointments they make for high profile and, in their eyes, highly paid jobs, they are less likely to be forgiving of a candidate who does not think clearly, present accurately and provide focus.

David Bell is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council

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