In this climate of teacher vacancies, it would be easy to think anyone with an iota of intelligence and experience could walk into any job. But complacency is a very dangerous attitude to take into an interview.
Schools may appear to be desperate, but fortunately most are still not willing to take on just anyone who walks through the door. And one area in which most heads and governors will not contemplate a dilution of principle is equal opportunities. In a profession dedicated to helping every child to fulfil his or her potential, this might sound like a truism, but after years of interviewing for teachers and support staff, one east London primary headteacher believes it cannot be said too often.
"My experience is that whichever way I phrase the equal opps question, candidates rarely give a satisfactory answer. Yet evidence of understanding of this area is considered a prerequisite for employment," she says. "It is important because all schools want staff who, even if inexperienced, are prepared to respond to each pupil with respect and consideration, who recognise their responsibility to every individual child they teach.
"Often it is like pulling teeth for the interviewer. Prompt follows prompt and blank looks remain. Or, a light flickers and out comes the stock answer, noted from a lecture or a set book. It's so pat and full of jargon that the candidate's actual understanding of the issues is immediately suspect."
The real key to success is making the equal opps topic your own. The myriad of issues can be daunting, but with a bit of preparation you should be able to make an effective point, according to Karen Barnard, head of the University of London's careers service. "The first thing to do is to link it back to your philosophy of education," says Ms Barnard, who is a former headteacher.
"A teacher's job is to cater for each individual child and make sure he or she reaches his or her potential, no matter what that individual is like.
That is the starting point."
For teachers and support staff, equal opportunities is about removing the barriers to learning encountered by pupils, and a good interviewee will say this. But don't just leave it to the equal opportunities question; almost every answer you give should include an element of understanding diversity.
"You don't need to keep saying 'in line with equal opportunities policy', but interviewers will expect you to show it in answers on classroom management, relationship with parents, behaviour: almost everything," says Ms Barnard.
She advises that interviewees rehearse particular examples of how they have tackled diversity in the classroom and list other aspects of equal opportunities not covered in the specific case. If candidates are new to teaching, and have less experience, Ms Barnard recommends that they ensure the interview panel knows they have the theoretical knowledge. This could also mean talking about how children could be taught about the issues through the curriculum, particularly in primary school.
"Religious studies, art and geography can all be used to teach children about the value of diversity, as well as the more obvious personal, social and health education classes. Let the interview panel know that you think it's also important that your pupils have access to the debate," says Ms Barnard.
She also advises her postgraduate certificate in education students to ensure they mention social inclusion when asked, as they inevitably will be, what they see as the important issues facing education today. "It is important that they show they understand that diversity issues are an integral part of the everyday job, not an add-on that is thought about separately to teaching."
It is not only newly qualified teachers who need to think about the issues before interview, Ms Barnard warns, but experienced professionals looking to change schools, who may not have had the time to keep track of what is now acceptable and what is not. "It is very important for teachers moving on to research all the current thinking on diversity. The use of one out-of-date phrase will not go down well. They should talk to their diversity officer or someone else who has monitored the debate to ensure they get it right," she says.
With inclusion at the forefront of the educational agenda, this is the time to show that you have thought about equal opportunities and worked out what you can contribute.
GET IT RIGHT
* Convey that you know that equal opportunities are integral to your profession.
* Prepare at least one example concerning diversity from your teaching practice (for instance, the seating arrangements you made or your lesson planning).
* Show that you recognise the multitude of barriers to education (gender, disability, cultural heritage, language, special needs, sexual orientation and so on).
* Don't leave the issue of diversity to the one equal opportunities question you know you will be asked.
* Don't use wrong or outdated vocabulary.
* Don't use the text book answer without relating it specifically to your experience of teaching and learning.