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Too young or too female to promote?

I am a 33-year-old female deputy head of a primary school, with an outstanding teaching record and considerable experience of working in challenging schools. I have so far been unsuccessful in my applications for headship. Is my youth or my gender preventing my success?

It is always disappointing and unsettling to be turned down for a job when an application has demanded a lot of energy and emotional commitment.

Sometimes we are convinced that there is something wrong with us, and it can be hard to find the resilience to recover.

Sometimes we look to blame external factors; maybe the interview panel really do believe that age or gender matter. If you have any evidence, either from something said during the interview, or from another source, that you are the victim of discrimination, you should contact your union, who may take the case to a tribunal.

However, it may be that the panel fails to see the talent we know that we have. It is helpful, when this happens, to step back, take a look at the bigger picture and invest time in some personal reflection and self - analysis.

Governors will have set out to identify the kind of person they see heading up their school, using their close knowledge of the school, its context, intake and attainment profile, staffing, the challenges facing it, the perception of the community it serves, and, importantly, whether or not they are looking for significant change. From this knowledge, they will draw up an ideal personal and professional specification, setting out the competencies and qualities they are seeking. They will test you on these, first through the letter of application and CV, and subsequently through face-to-face interaction during the interview day. It is not just the content of what is said and done, but more crucially, the extent to which they warm to the personal style of the candidate. They will select the candidate who fits their perception of what the school needs; he or she will have been able to convince them, through highlighting significant experience, achievements, skills and personal confidence, that the right person has arrived. So - do a little soul searching. First, ask yourself some simple but challenging questions:

* Why do you want to be a headteacher?

Is it because you think it's "time" you went for promotion, or are you looking for a more significant opportunity to make a fundamental difference to learners?

* Who are you? Leadership is more about who we are than what we do. What are your deeply held values and beliefs? What is it about you that may be critical to the process of leading learning in any organisation? Are you a learner yourself?

Think of a really effective leader you have worked with in the past and unpick just what it was that made them successful. Read some research on powerful leadership and what makes successful schools, and take yourself through a mental audit.

* What do you want from headship? Do you have a passionate belief in success for every child? Are you convinced that failure is not an option? Do you have a strong commitment to leading learning at every level? Have you got the resilience, stamina and optimism to stay on course, through inevitable setbacks?

Once you have gained some deeper insights, find some key people whose opinion you trust. Ask them to honestly and constructively give you feedback about how they perceive you - to explicitly describe your strengths and be brutally candid about those aspects of your personality you could work on. You should emerge bruised but wiser. If you still want to seek headship, give some serious consideration to the kind of school which might provide the scope you are looking for. Do your homework: visit the school. Stand at the gate and listen in on conversations of parents.

Read its Office for Standards in Education report and the reports of its near neighbours. Form some hypotheses about issues that the school may have, and start to think through the options available to a potential leader.

Now make your application, secure in the knowledge that you are informed, self-aware and convinced that you are the right person to do the job.

Relax. Seek to build rapport with each individual on the panel and trust that they will recognise a real gem when they see one. Best of luck!

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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