Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Moving up

Moving up

The last edition of Leader looked at guidance for recruiting senior leadership posts. Moving to the other side of the interview process, this month Harvey Black offers advice for getting the right promotion.

It's Monday break. Your fellow deputy asks if you've seen last week's job advert for Bridgetown High School in the next authority, which is recruiting for a new head. You've been so busy you haven't - yet this is a school you rate and you've been thinking about your next career move since you completed NPQH almost two years ago.

However this weekend your parents are coming as it's your daughter's birthday. Your last interview was almost six years ago and the application kit is a bit out of date.

Or worse still, you are head of science and deep in the school production. You see from a notice on the board that a former colleague, currently seconded, is returning to take up the post you had your eye on - director of studies.

You hadn't known the post would be vacated by early retirement. If only your performance review hadn't slipped for yet another year...

It is only too easy, as time flies by, to buy into the staffroom talk that promotion is far too often in the hands of arbitrary heads and governors swayed by glossy Powerpoint presentations.

You may convince yourself not to bother - especially if you see the long hours senior colleagues seem to have to commit themselves to.

The reality is not quite as stark. Governors these days are often much more savvy, using consultancy to support their appointment processes, and heads are not usually so arbitrary.

So, back to the application for the post at Bridgetown, with a closing date just over a week away and a committed weekend...

There are some simple, practical steps to help make sure that the application and the letter - even when written under time pressure - stand up to the scrutiny of a governors' panel and get you to the top of the short list.

This guidance comes from watching heads' and governors' responses to many applications and sensing that candidates may not have presented themselves as well as they might.

As NPQH is now mandatory, colleagues are well aware of the nature of school leadership and the expectations of the role both for deputies and heads. It pays to have thoroughly absorbed the National Standards for Leadership which are available on the NCSL website.

Reading between the lines

In the application pack, the person specification is particularly significant because it will have been shaped by the panel's thinking about the skills and attributes they seek in a new incumbent.

The job description will also give a indication of their expectations for their school community.

They may indirectly be seeking responses to a particular question, such as how the candidate will approach specialist status or introduce personalised learning or develop an extended school.

These are important signals which, if not recognised and responded to in the application, indicate very clearly that the response is a general one relevant to any school. There is always one which has the right school name at the top, but another one at the bottom - the previous application! Referees under pressure do it too.

The covering letter should not substantially duplicate material recorded on the application form or curriculum vitae, though it may be necessary to make reference to particular previous experience.

Instead, it should interpret the facts supplied there, giving them cohesion and meaning in the context of the new post.

When heads and governors read the covering letter, they should readily gain a positive picture of you, your educational values, where you have come from, where you are going and above all what might be the effect in this school of appointing you.

A suggested format is to divide the letter into four main sections:

  • A consideration of what you perceive the post to involve with an appreciation of the current stage of the school's development and how it could progress.

  • A statement of what you have to offer with an interpretation of prior experience which sets out your career in terms of educational vision, values and achievements.

  • A paragraph which makes clear how you would go about the job, and a suitably modest appreciation of the skills and qualities which you believe would be pertinent. These should be based on evidence.

  • A forward looking statement of what you believe would happen to the school under your leadership. This might involve possible priorities - the most recent Ofsted report on the website might highlight these if they have not been sent in the pack.

The whole letter should not be longer than two sides of A4, well constructed, logical, engaging and persuasive. Be sure to proofread one last time to make sure no words are left out. Even the best letters can fall by the wayside for want of proper style or syntax.

Know thy referees

Choosing your two referees is important - one will most likely be the head or a governor. If you use the local authority, it is best to choose someone who does know you and the school well. Panels are not usually impressed with bland descriptions from officers under pressure, which indicate that your potential is not fully known or understood.

When the letter of invitation for interview comes, it should explain the selection procedure. Usually it has a first day where you are given the opportunity to view the school in action and to meet students, senior colleagues and staff, and often a social gathering with all the governors.

Gone are the days of facing the elected LEA members and officers in county hall to get past the first stage. Now the responsibility is solely on the governors, advised by the director of education or a representative.

Depending on the context, governors may well include a written exercise; a discussion group exercise; and panel interviews exploring professional competence, leadership and management, personal and communication skills. This is usually with a view to reducing the short list to three or so candidates for a final day.

The last interview day may well involve a presentation and final interview where the panel will explore in more depth the values and evidence they have sought in their quest to find the best fit.

Regardless of the position you are seeking, pre-planning will greatly improve the chances of success. On-going discussions with the head or line manager, through a thoroughly professional review process, will help you assess your readiness.

Many school leaders are fortunate to work with heads who see their colleagues' career progression as delivering for the profession as a whole. They will feel the rewards of their staff moving on to deputy and head posts as much as the candidates themselves.

Harvey Black is director of the ASCL consultancy service and formerly a headteacher in Bristol.

Support for promotion

Below are a few hints on making sure your application does not obstruct the reader from seeing the qualities and potential you offer. Governors and heads are recruiting the best match from the field and will look for the candidate who best meets their needs and context.

  • Explain your career pattern fully

  • Enter the jobs in the order specified

  • Include all qualifications

  • State the month and year of appointments

  • Ensure statements are detailed, specific and evidence-based

  • Do not miss out a box on a form, even if you do not like it

  • Avoid crossing out a box, saying "refer to my letter/CV"

  • Separate out sequential posts, if in the same school

  • Avoid generic statements that can be misinterpreted (I went back to Australia for personal reasons)

  • Do not pad or duplicate material and ignore advice that urges you to be pushy ("This makes me a very suitable candidate for the post.")

Support for promotion

Through our Management and Professional Services Office, ASCL offers a one-to-one service, Preparing for Promotion, to support senior leaders or subject heads who want to enhance their interviewing and application skills. Even experienced heads going for a second or third headship have found it a useful 'refresher' for brushing up on their skills.

ASCL MAPS consultants have extensive professional experience of senior leadership in schools or colleges. The cost of the consultancy varies depending on individual requirements and amount of time involved.

To find out more about consultancy services, contact the MAPS Office on 0116 299 1122 or maps@ascl.org.uk

MAPS also runs a practical, two-day residential course, Towards Deputy Headship, for those preparing for their first promotion into a deputy post. Check the calendar at www.ascl.org.uk for dates.

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