Why is the top rung out of reach?

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
With senior management licked, Paul Blum wonders why stepping up to headship is causing him so much trouble

Letters of application, 20; long-listing interviews, three; final-day interviews, zero. I'm chalking up the worst statistical runs of my teaching career.

Contrary to what some TES columnists have told me for five years about hundreds of empty headships, re-advertisements and a gross shortage of applicants, I'm finding it hard to get a look-in. Yet with 20 years'

experience of teaching and school management - five as a deputy head - I would seem, on paper at least, to be the ideal candidate.

Until now, I've had a knack of being shortlisted and selected for senior management posts. At deputy head level, I have had six out of six shortlistings, six out of six final-day interviews and the offer of three posts in 10 years. I've even been cocky enough to write a book about how to get into senior management in schools which other people have found useful.

But the headship statistics are not encouraging. Have I just lost my touch or is the headship quest just a different ball game?

Two years into the application process, feedback and research have helped me reach some interesting conclusions. My first problem is that I live and work in inner London as a deputy. Most of the schools (often academies) where headships come up offer six-figure salaries. The hope of the selectors is that they will attract fields of existing premier-league heads. On most occasions, deputies need not apply because the fields for these jobs often have upwards of 30 applicants, so I have learnt not to waste my time when I see these adverts. Instead, I look to headships on the edge of London or its immediate outskirts, where salaries are more modest.

I have learnt some useful lessons in how to conquer the first major hurdle of being shortlisted from 25 applicants to five. I have given up on my handwriting, which is too spidery. I now download forms and type everything except my signature. Evidently, the sight of my writing has been a turn-off for selection panels. I got my current head, a seasoned campaigner now on his second school, to look closely at my letter of application. On his advice, I made it more personal, less formal.

Gone are my pronouncements about the ideal qualities of a good leader, and included are practical things I have done in the past and would do in the future. So far, this new approach has got me two shortlistings in two attempts.

Clearly, there are some talented applicants who waltz through their first headship interviews. But I have been making some silly mistakes that I must cut out if I am to get into the final day of interviews, let alone get the job.

The first was a failure to do the proper research, which must go deeper than just looking at the average application pack, which is often full of spin and massaged statistics on exam success. Pre-interview school visits can also be superficial. The potential head candidates are treated like a team of visiting Ofsted inspectors. I have learnt to cheat and snatch a few minutes with pupils by themselves as a way of forming an accurate picture of genuine points of strength and weakness. Contact with the school's link inspector can be another way of getting a reality check on the crucial issues.

But I'm still making mistakes in the interview process itself. This is the first time in my career when most of my inquisitors are not in education themselves. My answers have been too long-winded and "academic" for my audience. I am going to need to practise my questions and answers with a sympathetic audience, and learn my script. My three first-round interviews have shown me that most of the questions are predictable, whatever the school.

Finally, I need to remember that I am on show at all times, in all places and with all people once I step into that school for the day. I am sure it didn't help when another candidate and I escaped for a five-minute break from the lunch with governors to walk to a local shop and clear our heads.

I must keep working on my gravitas and serious-mindedness, or at least a pretence of them. Clearly, these are key attributes for the 21st-century head.

Paul Blum is deputy head in a London school and author of Surviving and Succeeding in Senior School Management (RoutledgeFalmer, 2006)

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