Reading between the lines

28th April 2006 at 01:00
That dream job can turn into a nightmare. Make sure you check it out properly as you apply. Phil Revell explains how.

Ken was the star of the county. Tipped for rapid promotion, it seemed only a matter of time before he had a school of his own. He went for the deputy's job in a very traditional school where the long serving head said that he needed a thinker; someone to shake the school up and take it forward.

Ken sailed through the interview and landed the job. But he soon discovered that the head's enthusiasm for change was a mirage, and that his senior management colleagues were equally unreceptive. Ken's collegiate style didn't fit with the autocratic way the school was run; his proposals were sidelined; he was marginalised at every opportunity. In a school where senior managers adopted a macho 'show them whose boss' approach to the kids; Ken's quieter, more democratic demeanour was seen as weak and feeble.

After four years of this, Ken knew that he had to leave, but the county superstar was now seen as a failed deputy. Facing cul-de-sacs at every turn, he became ill, and eventually left teaching for an uncertain future.

Reading between the lines is an essential part of any job application programme. If you want to avoid Ken's fate, two questions ought to be at the front of your mind. How much real information is the school giving you about the job and, possibly more important, what aren't they telling you?

Start with the ad. How many positions are vacant at the school? Are there other vacancies at this school elsewhere in the voluminous Jobs sections of The TES? If there are, it doesn't necessarily mean that the school is hiding the true situation; TES Jobs has different sections because a lot of jobhunters prefer it that way, but it's worth checking.

Does the ad tell you what you want to know about the job and the school? Is the closing date reasonable? Has the school been carefully vague about the salary point the job will attract?

Once you have found a few jobs to follow up on - and do not restrict yourself to one - you need to send off for further details. How easy is it to do this? Can you email, or do you have to ring the school and fight your way through a menu of options while being serenaded by Vivaldi's Four Seasons?

What goodies does the application pack contain when it finally thuds through your letter box? Have you been sent the full Ofsted report, or the shortened version intended for parents? Secondary applicants should expect the report for their department at least. Under the new inspection regime, schools have to prepare a self-evaluation form for Ofsted and keep it up to date. This form should contain a brief and accurate assessment of the school's strengths and weaknesses. Is it included in your pack?

If this kind of hard information is worryingly absent from the application pack, you can go hunting yourself. Read the latest inspection report on the Ofsted website and look for data on the DfES performance tables website, which gives key stage and GCSE data, alongside percentages for numbers of pupils with special needs and the school's value added indicator. All useful stuff - but why isn't the school telling you this?

You can also try a simple Google search under the school's name. That may turn up nothing - or it may reveal that the school burnt down in January, and that you face teaching in demountable classrooms for the next two years at least.

A search under the head's name can also be revealing, and should be an essential part of any prospective deputy's application process. Heads who have multiple Google hits because they sit on a wide variety of quangos and committees are, no doubt, wonderful people. But they are clearly absent from school fairly frequently. Is that a plus - or a minus?

If the vacancy is for a management post, what teaching and learning responsibility point comes with it? Schools are often vague about TLRs; this isn't absent mindedness, it's a management ploy to try to secure a person for the lowest possible salary.

If this is your first job, what does the school say about support during your induction year? Silence on this topic is not a good sign. And there are some other important stop signs on the applications highway. Check the interview dates: does the school plan to interview during the school holidays? Not good. Is the school in an Ofsted category - in special measures, serious weaknesses or has it been served a notice to improve? If it is in one of these categories of "concern", you will face constant monitoring and the pressure to meet demanding targets. Some people thrive in that kind of spotlight. Do you?

At some point in the process you should ring the school, on a pretext if necessary. If the admin staff are helpful and friendly, that's usually a good sign. But admin staff are vital people, if you are put through to Mrs Tightly Clenched, or Mr Condescending, you might reconsider.

Finally, where exactly is this school anyway? Look it up on one of the internet mapping programmes. What would your journey be like? Can you walk it, bike it, get there by bus? Or is it a convoluted trek involving 14 sets of traffic lights and an illegal right turn?

What happened to Ken's school? The head retired, and was replaced by one of the senior team. There was a slow decline and the school is now in special measures. The staff are stressed, observed to death and desperate to escape. When they look for jobs they read between the lines of the job ads very carefully.

For school reports and lists of schools causing concern official performance tables, see Map UK:

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