This post touches on my experiences of being an interviewee for headteacher posts. I have had some experience, and I’ve mixed a number of them up here. This follows my previous post on selecting a school to apply for a post.
The job (that I’m currently doing, at CVC) where I got the post and accepted was a brilliant process. I would say that because I got it and am happy. But I enjoyed it and was exhausted. It ensured I knew the school, accurately, by the end of it, and it put me through my paces. The governing body knew they were getting me – a not fully formed headteacher with some potential to shift the school from its already very good base.
The purpose of this blogpost is because a large number of colleagues have asked me about headteacher interviews, sometimes out of interest, and sometimes because they’ll be applying themselves. I hope this helps some people prepare. It may be useful for governing bodies interviewing candidates as well. I’ve listed some experiences, and briefly where I think an approach I’ve taken is helpful.
I’ve resisted writing about the application in depth because I just don’t think there is a standard application. Most people who are applying for Headships can write an application that hits the person specification and know this gives them a shout at an interview. I think preparation really shows up in the application though. There is no point in applying unless you have the time to really research the post, the school, the history, and you have time to listen to what you’re being told.
I should say at the outset that being honest is vital. I said this in my last blog, but it bears repeating. It is a disaster to get a headship where the governing body didn’t want you, or you didn’t really want the school.
A headteacher application and interview is unlike any other in education. The reason for this is that in any other post, you’re applying to the headteacher (or a teacher the head has delegated responsibility for the appointment to), perhaps with the support and challenge of governors, or to be ratified by governors.
In this case, the application is to governors themselves. Governing bodies are a mixed ability bunch. There are those who prepare well and take it seriously and those that don’t prepare well (though I think all take it seriously). There are those that have experience of education and know what they’re looking for, and those that don’t, and it’s possible some will judge you on trivial details.
Two anecdotes that illustrate this: I heard from a Headteacher colleague that he had been turned down from a previous interview because one of the panel had particularly objected to the colour of his socks. It was a single day process.
On the other hand, I attended a single interview process where I was interviewed by:
- the head of education at Policy Exchange
- one of Michael Gove (secretary of state for education at the time)’s Special Advisors
- the Headteacher of Bedford Free School
- the Headteacher of Kensington Aldridge Academy
- the Headteacher of Dr Challoner’s Grammar School (NLE)
- the Headteacher of Garrick Wood School (NLE)
- A lawyer at Clifford Chace
- two exceptional parent governors
- and various staff and students as with all Headteacher interviews.
This was a rigorous interview process indeed. So the same job in different schools can have very different people interviewing you. It can be a single day or three days.
My attitude to a Headteacher interview is that I really don’t want to be a Head where they don’t want me, so I am very honest. Sometimes, I have to accept it might be a rather trivial reason that they don’t want me. So keep everything in perspective.
I was phoned by a high profile Chair of Governors from a school I wouldn’t have considered and asked to apply for their headship. I was recommended by a previous interviewer – one of the panel in the rigorous process above (where I didn’t get the role). They’d further looked at this blog and got in touch to talk to me about the role. Several of these people in both these processes have become people I regularly use for advice and further networking, and have even become professional friends. It’s important to show your best side, even if you’ve decided to pull out or been told you’re going no further.
Governors will be taking it seriously, and will have put a lot of effort into the process. You’re seeing them at their best. I considered each time whether this was a governing body (or equivalent) I could work with.
I ensured I knew what I’d written in the application inside out. This always led to follow up questions in the interview. More particularly, I’d ensure I had my values and vision at the forefront of answers, and could relate back to them whenever I thought it right to, which was with most questions and tasks.
If there was a presentation, often on data, my approach was to either have notes in front of me, briefly, or notes on the data itself (usually RAISE from a similar school or the school), and ensure I’d practised the presentation so that I was fairly fluent. I don’t think I ever used powerpoint. I know that not using powerpoint this ruled me out of one headship. As said above, it depends what they’re looking for.
If the presentation was to staff I usually did it with no notes, practising first.
Apart from that, reading everything on the school (which I do for the application) that is possible and ensuring that I listen carefully to everything in the inevitable tour was all the preparation I did.
Choose the school:
I was always prepared to pull out of the process. In my mind, I was choosing the school, even if the interview was them deciding whether to select me.
For example, there was one process, which started at 11.30, had a brief chat with each candidate from the current headteacher and a tour, a lot of waiting, a presentation to all staff, and then onto the next day.
The school was requires improvement in Ofsted terms, with poor results. I began the next day with a ‘gut feeling’ that the process wasn’t rigorous and hence I might not be well suited to working with this governing body. I took part in one interview, involving the local authority and I really thought that they weren’t searching enough. The governing body seemed to defer to the LA and sometimes the current head. I went to and knocked on the current headteacher’s office.
I asked him about the governing body. I expressed that I suspected the governing body didn’t know the school. He was too professional to confirm this, but he confirmed it with his body language, and I just trusted my instincts, went to see the chair of governors, and walked out.
Gut instinct is really important to me. In this situation, I really didn’t want to be waiting for a telephone call either worried about being offered the post, or deciding whether to accept it. That required me to be sure it was the job for me, or I withdrew. Of course, without being sure it is the right job, one doesn’t perform as well anyway.
After any interview process, I would always talk it through with colleagues not invested in it. What I did wrong and what I would do next time dominated, but what I would do similarly is also important. I always took feedback (even when I’d withdrawn), though sometimes I didn’t accept the feedback because I didn’t agree (see the point about mixed ability governing bodies)
Tasks I have encountered:
I don’t have the correct approach to any of these. This is what I remember and my broad approach. These are in no particular order. Some panels want to know what you have done. Others want to know what you’re going to do. It’s hard to judge, but I’d go for a combination and read the panel.
Pre-interview visit to current school: Rare. In one interview, the chair of the trust came to visit me in my current school. I didn’t do any admin that day but I did everything else normally for the two hour visit. I did walk the classrooms, so it was clear that presence is something that is not unusual – I was out and about as a Deputy Headteacher. This task is not on the day of an interview, so stands out as slightly different to the rest, which are interview process tasks. I think it’s quite a clever, though time consuming thing to do, because I suspect the chair of the trust could pick up quite a lot about what I’m really like.
Tour: Very common. Usually from a student. Since I’d almost always had a tour prior to application, I usually spent this listening to the students’ perspective on the school, asking them questions about things from curriculum, behaviour, teaching and learning, careers, and what they want from their new headteacher. This is invariable useful in interviews later in the process.
Goldfish bowl: Infrequent. All the candidates sit around a table, and are given discussion points or a task to do collaboratively. My approach was to usually eschew the ‘I agree with what the last person said, and I’d like to add…’ approach, and to find an area of disagreement and to exemplify, professionally where I disagree. I would therefore be able to show how I listen and how I try to gently persuade. It’s a very artificial conversation though, as everyone knows they have to speak at some point, and the points made are for the benefit of observers.
“Speed-dating”: Infrequent. It wasn’t called this, but twice I’ve had short (4-6 minute) interviews with groups of staff (and/or students) with a whistle or equivalent and move on. My approach has been to go back to my vision and values and mention them in as many as appropriate. I also tried to always say something I’d noticed or heard about the school.
Student interview: Common. My approach here is to be honest and not patronise, including where they won’t like the answer (for example, I was asked if I would look at making students wear shoes in my current school rather than trainers [answer:yes]). My experience is that students see through being patronised. They also often like to throw in a curve ball at the end… ‘if you were a biscuit, which…?’/ ‘what’s your party trick?’
Teaching staff interview: Very common. Usually focussed on teaching and learning. Cognitive science was usually good to talk about here. Also: workload and what leadership can do about it, abolishing lesson gradings and the rationale, autonomy and trust, and the value of subjects. They often want to hear about behaviour and my plans for dealing with low-level disruption.
Middle Managers interview: Common. This would cross over into a number of areas, but curriculum, teaching and learning and leadership and management mainly.
SLT interview: Varies. This can be as a group, or separate, or each member of SLT can join a panel. They often have significant sway over the governors. I’d encourage getting to know as much about SLT as possible – after all I’d be inheriting them if appointed. They also know the school and the job well, so listening to them is really important.
Support staff interview: Fairly common. I always found this the hardest, as I was confronted usually with issues that have come up somewhere that I wasn’t aware of. This can include, lack of effective CPD for support staff, wanting teaching staff to work harder so TAs can know what is going on, recent issues with redundancies, issues related to the minutiae of individuals jobs, legal issues. I always went back to values and where possible, referred to how support staff can have real impact on our pupils.
Group task: Infrequent. Solve a problem (usually buildings) split into two groups and present the solution to the governors.
Finance interview: Fairly common, but varies in form. Usually with some fictional or not so fictional numbers. Quite often given 15 minutes to analyse and then present or write about savings or issues. The answer is almost always staffing. My approach would be ‘I can see that we might be overspending here, here or here, but to make substantial savings we have to look at staffing. This means non-teaching staff, or class sizes, or cover, or subjects offered or teaching ratios, and difficult decisions. This is the reality when a school has a difficult budget. I went on teaching staff circa 60% of budget, support staff 20%, and the rest the other 20%. It’s possible a panel put a figure somewhere else to see if you spot it.
Teaching and Learning interview: Common. How do you know what is good teaching? What is good CPD? I think if you can answer these two questions, everything else flows here. I wish there were more curriculum interviews, but these often go back to pedagogy (sadly). In the job I was appointed to, I think I tried to move this towards discussion on curriculum, though I didn’t think I did a very good job in that interview.
Leadership and management interview: Common. Here is the only place I would admit to my weaknesses, and what I was doing to address them. I would also talk a lot about visibility, behaviour (which might be a separate interview was well), and then about rigorous systems of line management. The panel quite often wants to know if your action has led to colleagues leaving the school. It’s really important here to talk extensively about the role of governors, especially if you haven’t managed to elsewhere.
Attendance and behaviour interview: Common in some form. I think this is pretty predictable. I was not backward in saying that we should have high standards and no excuses. I was often challenged about pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with particular learning needs. My response is the distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ behave.
Letter to disgruntled parent or to parents generally: Common. Usually a parent who wants something and has been turned down. I’ve had to write to a governor who wanted their child moved up a set, a letter to encourage use of pupil premium funds, and a letter to a member of staff regarding an appeal on their lack movement up the pay spine.
Data task: Common. Sometimes ‘what does Raise tell you?’ Sometimes ‘what does this internal data tell you. I usually focus on what else I’d need to know to confirm very early hypotheses.
SLT meeting: Rare. All candidates sit around and take it in turns to chair a fictional SLT meeting agenda item. I was a part of this and it was interesting that the third person delegated an aspect of the task to each person. My approach was to listen, agree we didn’t really know, and (fictionally) send someone to find out more and stick it on the agenda next week. Probably didn’t go down well, but I wouldn’t waste time if we didn’t know, so it was honest.
Emergency task: Infrequent. Sometimes left as an envelope on your desk, or some other way of surprising you, I have experienced a number of these. One was where the next interview wanted a response to what I do over a member of staff who has organised a staff social, not followed procedure, and now that the event is cancelled, the school has lost £800.
Teaching and learning data: Rare. Presented with a set of lesson observation grades and monitoring, how is the school going to improve?
Presentation to the local community: Infrequent. I had this to 45 parents, primary school headteachers and so on.
Interview with local primary headteachers: Surprisingly common. This is worth having some thought on. It threw me in two interviews and I’m angry with myself that it did the second time. It’s a really good thing to put into a process, I think. It is a key difference between being a deputy and a head – the networking, the listening, and the local community all come in here.
Teach a lesson: Infrequent. Well, duh. I should be able to do this. I always planned too much. I always get the kids to collect a piece of card from me on the way in to write their names on so that you can question them by their names without too much fuss. I picked this up from a fellow candidate in one interview.
Teach a lesson on something not in the school’s curriculum: Rare. I didn’t do this well in the one interview where it happened, so I’m not sharing what I taught.
Observe a lesson: Common. I think I have usually done this well. I’ve done it from interview, where feedback is to an actor or governor. I’ve done it where it’s live, with feedback to the actual teacher. And I’ve done it live, where feedback is to a member of SLT pretending to be the teacher. I ask questions and make suggestions for improvement. Usually thinking about working memory and long term memory is a good way in. I always start with ‘I’m not going to grade this lesson, because I won’t be if I’m the head, so don’t read anything into that’, unless I thought there was something appalling about it (that hasn’t happened). My worst experience of this was where I knew the teacher, and had a lot of respect for him, and I just found it impossible to believe what I’d seen (he had been told to deliver a lesson that wasn’t all that), and didn’t want to patronise him. I was really embarrassed at my performance in that.
Presentation to staff on me: Common, in different forms. In one interview, I was told to ‘go through this door, you have to talk about what you’ve learnt about the school for ten minutes… you have no preparation time’ and shoved into the staff room.
Interview with the 6th form students: Frequent where there is a 6th form. In my experience they want to know about responsibilities and that you WILL focus on the quality of their experience in the classroom, not abandon them for Key Stage 4.
In tray: Common. Aspects of some of the above plus some emergency emails and telephone messages. A fixed time to prioritise and answer. e.g. Michael Gove wants to visit tomorrow, a fight has broken out in the playground, Teacher x and TA y are getting a divorce and are crying, the Chair of the Academy Trust is angry at pupils misbehaving on the way to school, a parent needs a phone call on z…. my approach here has been to ensure I know who I can delegate to and use them, but with clear instructions on the outcome e.g. “report back to me if unhappy, no need if not” and sometimes on how to deal with it. Child protection is first priority, always.
Final interview: Common. Usually starts with a presentation on where the school will be in a certain amount of time. I really think it’s important to use what I’ve learnt about the school in the previous day, two days or three days to go through this. There are then usually 8-25 people, including most or all of the governing body. It lasts an hour or three, depending on how many candidates remain.
I used ‘we’ when referring to the school at every interview. I took this from when I interviewed a headteacher early in my career. He impressed me by talking as if he was in post, and really cared. I still use ‘we’, and found in my interviews if I stopped using it, it was probably time to withdraw.
I almost always stayed in a hotel, but checked wifi. Between days there is always something to do, and it’s much harder to concentrate at home. For example, in one interview, I was asked (at 9pm on the second day) to prepare another lesson to teach on the third day.
A friend of mine, Keven Bartle, sent me a list of over 100 questions that could be asked. I had asked for the list, but I found it unhelpful. It just meant I was practising answers, rather than listening and responding. I was better off without practising questions. However, having someone read my application and point out questions that came to mind was very helpful.
I accepted a post after an interview process that I would call ‘reassuringly rigorous’. I also always gave feedback to governors where I thought it wasn’t so (or it was). I wouldn’t accept a post where the governors hadn’t put us through our paces because I wanted a good governing body. I got one, but I had to be persistent. I would advise governing bodies not to ‘dumb down’ their processes – candidates in their rooms were scathing about ones that weren’t and do chat to each other. I’m delighted in my post. I feel like I was myself in the interview, and I really feel like the job I am doing is exactly the one I suggested I would do during my interview. I’ve been fortunate in inheriting a fantastic governing body and a brilliant SLT, but a part of that was selecting the school.
I’m not convinced interviewing is a great way of appointing a headteacher. However, I’m going to plagiarise Churchill: I think it’s better than all the other ways that have been tried and that I can think of.