Head Hunting – Managing the Interview Minefield

The motivation to write this blog article came from the occasional requests for advice I get from colleagues who are about to be interviewed for a headteacher post, and one in particular I received recently via twitter. Whilst I don’t claim any particular revelatory insights, it’s fair to say that I’ve observed the process at close hand on many occasions – as an LA adviser, a Trust CEO and, given the fact that I’ve had five headships myself, as a candidate. On a rough calculation, I think I have probably been directly involved in at least 40 or 50 Head Teacher recruitments, across all phases. It’s always a privilege and often an inspiration – seeing colleagues who have so much to offer sharing their expertise and enthusiasm, and I never underestimate the emotional investment that people bring to the process.

I’m not going to talk too much about the detail, or the specific knowledge that’s needed, firstly because it’s often context-specific, and secondly, because it’s probably easy enough to predict. Prospective Headteachers need to be able to talk confidently about teaching and learning, curriculum, leading school improvement, managing pupil behaviour and safeguarding. They need to show their knowledge of the current educational issues that are relevant to the context of the school – could be workload, phonics, academisation, religious ethos, SEND. Even if they don’t yet have a great deal of experience, they need to demonstrate a broad grasp of areas such as managing a budget, HR systems or capital projects. They also need to evidence core leadership skills, including strategic thinking, communication, managing a team and so on.

However, if the recruitment process has been well-run and there are enough prospective candidates out there (a big if), then it’s fair to assume that everyone called to interview can demonstrate the core skills and knowledge. The purpose of the interview process is not to find out if someone can do the job, it’s to establish who is the best fit of the candidates called to interview in the specific context of the school.

The most important message I can give to anyone applying for Headship is this – be active, manage the process. Remember, it’s not simply the panel’s job to get the information about you – it’s your job to give it to them. Here are my five key steps for a successful outcome:

  1. Know what you’re applying for

I’ve visited hundreds of schools, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that they’re all different. It’s why I’m suspicious of off-the-peg improvement strategies – when it comes to schools, context is all. Is the school on a rapid improvement trajectory following a disappointing Ofsted, or avoiding complacency after a long-distant Outstanding judgement? Does the school need to manage a community with highly aspirational, but sometimes unrealistic aspirations, or engage a group of hard-to reach parents? Was the previous Head a long-established and much-loved member of the community, or has the school had a period of leadership instability? What is the nature of the social, ethnic or cultural mix? Are there any glaring curriculum issues that you have picked up on?

There is nothing more off-putting to a panel who are steeped in their school community, than getting the impression that a candidate is churning out standard answers, and a generic, catch-all vision. A visit is obviously very helpful, but if this is not possible, then a phone call and a detailed look at the school website is essential. Remember, on most occasions, you’re not applying for the school you’re currently working in – all too often, candidates talk about their own context without applying it to the job they’re hoping to do.

2. Know what you’re offering (and what you’re not)

Applying for a Headship is a big step, and you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t believe that you had something to offer. So what is it? What’s your elevator pitch? I think it’s a good idea to do this explicitly – in one paragraph or a series of bullet points, write an honest account of the specific experience and qualities you bring, and how they are suited to this post.

Here’s a (mostly) fictional example:

My rapid rise through the profession has come about because of the immediate impact I’ve had in all my leadership roles. My energy and enthusiasm are infectious and have enabled me to have a significant impact on children’s lives, as can be seen by the improvement in Reading in my last school, which I led, and the positive comments in the Ofsted report. My CPD record shows that I keep in touch with educational developments, and this has enabled me to have a dramatic impact on the practice of my colleagues, through coaching and modelling of good practice. I have introduced innovative use of IT, which has transformed curriculum delivery.

Summarising your offer in this way brings clarity – once you’re clear about this, it becomes easier to communicate it to governors. However, less often recognised but just as important is knowing your potential weaknesses in relation to the job. You can be sure that the panel will be discussing them when they’re making their deliberations, so hoping nobody mentions them is not a sensible option, even if it’s tempting. Very often, a candidate will be so focussed on telling what they can do well, that they are unable to handle the questions about things they can’t do yet. Once again an honest and explicit process can be helpful, listing potential weaknesses in a paragraph, and setting out how you will address them if you get the job (don’t forget, this is for your own consumption only):

Using the example above, it might look like this:

Although I have had a number of jobs in a short time, this is not because I don’t stick at a job, it’s because my success in each one has led to opportunities being offered – I’m now ready to consolidate and stay longer in the next post. I have worked in a context of rapid change which has been difficult for some, but I listen to colleagues and take them with me, and if I was successful, I would spend time getting to know the needs of the school and building relationships before implementing radical reforms. Although my experience in leadership is focussed on English and the weakness of the school appears to be maths, much of my curriculum expertise is transferable, and I am looking for Maths CPD to develop my domain-specific knowledge.

Whichever way a candidate chooses to go through this process, whether by writing it down formally as I’ve suggested, or through their own reflection, I believe that understanding strengths and weaknesses is an essential task, and takes me on to the next step:

3. Control the process

When you’ve understood your strengths and weaknesses, the task is simple – you need to emphasise your strengths and minimise your weaknesses, to make sure that the message you’re giving is the one you want to.

Every activity is an opportunity to do this. I’m sure you’ve seen TV interviews with politicians, where the actual question is almost irrelevant. They have come with something to say, and will say it whatever they’re asked – the sort of interviews that go: ‘Well Kirsty, if I may answer your question by saying that the public is not concerned with scurrilous gossip about illegal payments from Russia to my secret Cayman Island bank accounts, they’re much more interested about my new initiative to increase sentences for dropping litter in public places, and so I’ve come down to my local park today…’

Whilst I’m not suggesting that you ignore the question, the activities during the day are simply the opportunity for you to get your core message across – why I’m the right person for this job. Whether it’s leading an assembly, looking at pupil data, observing a lesson, doing a presentation, carrying out an in-tray exercise, the aim is the same – emphasise strengths, minimise weaknesses, make sure that the panel are seeing the person you want them to see. Too often, candidates will be passive recipients rather than active leaders of the process.

4. Don’t stress about the detail

An exam where everybody got 100% is not very well designed and it tells you nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Likewise, an interview process that goes perfectly is similarly badly-designed. The majority of Headship candidates are going for a promotion, so be definition they are not yet doing a job at this level. In my experience, interview panels respect honesty and humility, and allow for occasional mis-steps.

There will be some areas that are more difficult for you – for example, if you’ve never had the opportunity to manage a school budget, you can’t suddenly pretend you have that experience. In this sort of situation, the important thing is to understanding basic principles, and show a willingness to learn and listen to good advice. Preparing for the day as if you were cramming for an exam, for example trying to remember all of Rosenshine’s principles or the Gatsby benchmarks, is not a sensible use of time, and will be less impressive than you might imagine.

5. Sometimes it’s not meant to be

It’s perfectly possible to do a brilliant interview process, showing everything you want to – and still the job goes to someone else. That’s always disappointing, but it really doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong – it means that you were not the right person for this particular job on this particular occasion. By making that decision, the panel have done you a favour – the right job will be there somewhere, even if you have to wait a little while longer. 

So, good luck – our education system is totally dependent upon brave and brilliant people coming through and taking on the responsibility of headship. It’s a uniquely demanding job, but also one that gives tremendous joy and satisfaction.

Author: Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values. My blog is a place where I share my thoughts and ideas on the world of education and school leadership, with the aim of provoking debate and discussion. Click the logo above to read more.

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