Posted by: mrlock | January 9, 2016

Choosing the right school – to apply for headship.

I’m aware that people who are aiming for headship will be about to see a larger number of headship posts advertised at this time of year.

A number of people have asked me about the process of a Headship application. The first aspect I considered in my applications is getting the right school for me. I should say at the outset that this is secondary-focussed. I don’t know the extent to which it’s transferable to primary.

Getting the right school:

When I was applying, I was aware that I would be responsible for shaping the vision and direction of a large institution were I to get a post. It would be crazy not to ensure this was a direction I support and indeed am driven to ensure we do the best way possible. So getting the right school was absolutely crucial for me. And there are practical considerations that one might need to consider.

Before being appointed to Cottenham Village College last year, in three years I had looked into over 100 schools, phoned over 50 chairs of trustees or governors or equivalent, downloaded application forms and person specifications from about 30, applied to about 25, been called for interview 17 times, actually went to interview 14 times (one I didn’t go to because OFSTED called on the day before the interview and there were two others I opted out of), withdrew from 5 during the interview, failed to get 7 (6 on the final day), turned one down and accepted the one at CVC.

A headship application would take me approximately six hours to do properly, and was a real investment of time.

Quite often I’d stop half way through the process having found something that revealed it just wasn’t for me. There are principles I wouldn’t compromise on just to get a (wrong) headship.

I didn’t feel that many of the above were particularly failures; just that they weren’t right. Of the ones I didn’t get, there was only one that I really wanted and would have accepted on the spot.

I realise that others just walk into a role after their first application. My approach was not to fit a school, but to find a school that fitted me (and I have). I was happy in my previous role, and not desperate to leave. The school was and is going places, and there was no push factors leading me to need to get away – other than we did want to move out of London with my young family at some point over the next few years.

I offer this, not necessarily as advice for others, but as an indication of the lessons I learnt along the way. It may be useful if you are applying for headships. It may also be useful if you are advertising one.

I do think that in an application process candidates should be honest. I did not want to be appointed to a school that didn’t really want me. I could have been successful by tempering what I am about, but then I would have been in a position where I had to do a job I wasn’t interested in doing, or indeed couldn’t do.

Have a vision:

This is promoted on every leadership course. But I think it’s really important despite this, not because of it.

It’s important for me because it’s the reason I want to do the job. It leads from my values, centred around equality. My vision is that we will have a school where pupils are entitled to the best that has been thought and said. That comprehensive school pupils are entitled to the same provision that others get by paying for it. And that the gap between the achievement of disadvantaged pupils and their peers is a national disgrace.

You can try to prepare answers to every question or task you’re going to get, but if you are trying to remember these, you’ll fail to grasp the intricacies of the questions or tasks. If you come back to values and vision each time, you can knit a coherent framework that actually gives an insight into what a school under your leadership will be like. And it makes your application, interview and tasks coherent with what you do when you start in the role.

During interviews, on curriculum, on teaching and learning, on behaviour, on leadership and management, and on community, I was able to refer to the vision that I had banged on about in my personal statement. If it wasn’t the right vision, so be it.

In interviews where I deviated from this, and tried to play to what I thought the governors wanted, I was far less effective.


As a matter of course, when I saw what I thought was a suitable job, I’d take the following steps.

  1. Write down all details I could about the school in my file, starting a new 2 page spread. This would include:

a. OFSTED rating, strengths and improvement points

b. Results for the last 3 years – progress in maths and English, value added, notes for questions to the governors

c. How long the head has been there

d. Anything notable about the job description or person specification

e. a quick trawl of news for anything that needs clarifying

f. Anything notable from social media, or the school website, particularly over curriculum.

2. Phone for a visit; ask preliminary questions

3. Visit; have a list of things that need to be asked from my notes above. If I couldn’t visit, ask for a phone call on governors. I would always ask about behaviour policy, what the experience of staff is in the school, the roles of SLT, and the finances. I would also ask why the current headteacher is leaving.

4. Spend quite a significant time deciding whether an application is worthwhile. Quite often, if I’d used up a lot of time (some conversations with chairs of governors went on for a couple of hours), I’d let them know if I wasn’t applying, and give them a reason why.

5. Try to find someone who works in the school, lives near the school, or knows something of it. There would be something that will be helpful to me. On one occasion (the school where I didn’t accept the post after a 3 day interview) I went the day before to the town, stayed in a B&B, and went to the local pub the night before visiting. I asked about the reputation of the school with some locals.

6. Listen, carefully, especially in the visit and any phone calls.

I reckon I’d spent 20 hours, including two dinners with people who live or know of the school, talking about Cottenham Village College before I decided to apply. But because I’d done that, I knew I wanted the job.

Be choosy:

I was looking for a school where I could implement my vision. That success is desirable, demanded and achievable is my pithy way of putting it, but actually it is that powerful knowledge is an entitlement to all pupils. I also believe that we should eschew excuses.

I didn’t hold back on this. It’s not the mainstream of educational discourse at the moment – but nonetheless it was important to me and is a part of the school I lead. Being very explicit about this – in application and in interview – has allowed me to be honest in doing the job.

It also led to my not being shortlisted on occasion, I’m sure.

If the governors or the school were not open to this, it either came through that I wasn’t what they were looking for, or I ruled myself out by disagreeing with the predominant view of the governors. Usually, I’d see this coming.

On one occasion, I rang a school to ask if I could speak to the chair of governors. This school was too far away for me to visit, was Outstanding, but had results that suggested if would be Inadequate in the near future. It could be the right job for me, because a school that was in such a difficult position might be open to a change of direction. I wanted to hear if the governors would support a change of direction.

I was referred to the current headteacher. I said I didn’t want to speak, at that time, to the current headteacher, and asked for the chair of governor’s number. I was given it.

When I called the chair of governors, I was informed that they didn’t know the answer to any of my questions, but that they would get the headteacher to call me.

I didn’t apply. I understand it is now in special measures.

My criteria for application was: supportive governors, supportive trust/ executive head, (fairly) stable staffing at least, school that knows its weaknesses and genuinely wants the head to address them – even if it doesn’t know how.

The advantage of being choosy is that at the school I’m at I know I have the backing of the governors, trustees and executive headteacher in the direction I am taking the school. As a result, we’ve made more progress in a term than I ever thought possible.

Be honest:

This is linked with being choosy, but I knew the job I wanted to do, and I knew there were things that I didn’t think were positive in every school I applied to. There were things I’d like to change.

Of course, it was important that I recognise what I was going to inherit – a new head inherits a great deal, including an existing vision. But a part of the application and interview process is establishing if my vision and practice could align with what I was inheriting.

I did develop an honest line about surveying and listening in order that I could understand quickly the good things that happen in the school and ensure that we keep the things we really treasure.

Sometimes I was too honest I suppose. There was one headship interview where I was the only candidate on the second day.

After a presentation that took some time, an Assistant Head asked me a question after a long presentation, with words to the effect of “we know where you think the school needs to improve. Please could you give an outline of the things you think we do well?”

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d seen much they did well, even though I’d been looking for it, and I didn’t even believe my answer (it really was a politicians answer). I knew I wasn’t right for that school at that point. So did they!

I did reflect on whether I should have been looking for significant strengths, but in reality, if I’d got that job, I would have wanted to change almost everything about the school – something that it became clear the governors did not want me to do. I could answer why I wanted the job, but I should have been more discerning about whether the school was ready for the changes I would’ve been interested in introducing.

A second part of being honest was admitting where I need support. For me, this was around the legal aspects of HR and governance, and finance.

A third part of being honest was not holding back on my own qualities. If I think I can lead a school to be world class (I do), I said so. If I thought that my work on curriculum was groundbreaking, I said so. If I thought that I was solely responsible for improvements, I said so. I didn’t temper these in order that I would look humble.

The humility came with admitting when I played only a part in what I’d done, or in listening to those in the school about what they value, and showing that I valued their position or opinion by assimilating it into the direction I would take the school – that’s the case at interview but that’s also the case when doing the job.

Get someone to read it:

I used friends, colleagues, and others I know from social media. Vic Goddard and I have differing perspectives on many aspects of education, but he was very helpful with one application, saying “I don’t see why they’d shortlist you if you write this”. Jill Berry was also helpful, for example, with “as a head you inherit a great deal, including an existing vision” – this made me think differently about how I align my vision with the existing one, and even considering whether this is possible as a first step. I used different people each time because they contributed to my understanding of how varied different people can read an application.

I don’t think getting people to read an application has ever failed to make it better.


I think the best summary is that applying for a Headship is a bit like a political campaign, only with a lot more honesty.

Next week, I’ll try and remember as many tasks from as many interviews as I can, and how I approached them.



  1. Really good and important advice. I am a Primary Head and was working within the LA on a short term contract to aid me find the right school. I asked what I thought were the right questions but did end up being promised that the school just needed a coat of varnish and it would be fine.
    I should have been braver in using my contacts to find out far more information. I turned up to the first cluster meeting of Heads and overheard a colleague make a comment about me taking on the poisoned chalice.
    On top of this, i found myself in a school in a broadband deadspot which meant that the grand plans I had outlined in my letter were actually impossible to implement without serious investment.

    Three and a half years later, we have achieved so much and I don’t regret the move in any way. It is the right school for me and I know we are making a massive difference to what the children are experiencing. However, without asking the right questions and digging more deeply, the first year was a hell of a learning experience!


    • Good point Bill, and thanks for commenting. I should outline that this is secondary-focussed advice.


  2. This is great and really useful. I am working through my Npqh and am now on the lookout for primary head ships to start in September. Thanks- all the advice is great.


  3. Reblogged this on Governing Matters and commented:
    This is a very interesting and insightful post written by a Head who has recently been appointed. There’s lots in here for governors too.


  4. A great read and I particularly like and share your ‘vision’. If I worked at your school, I’d probably feel like I had ‘come home’.


  5. Interesting to read, Stuart – and I’m pleased you found your ‘match’ and you’re feeling positive in your headship.

    When I read your draft application and commented about the ‘inheriting a vision’ idea, I was part way through my doctoral research into the transition to headship. Have now finished the thesis (hurrah…) and have to say this dichotomy between INHERITING and INHABITING has proved to be key.

    You inherit a lot from your predecessor, including a senior team, the rest of your staff, your PA, your governing body, and an ‘expected’ way of enacting the role of head. But you don’t just inherit. Every new head worth their salt also strives to ‘inhabit’ the role and make it their own: developing, refining, and, they hope, building on successes and addressing those areas that could be better. You’re clearly doing just that!

    Hope 2016 is an excellent year for you, at work and with the family.


  6. I’ve been waiting for someone with the honesty to post something like this for a long time. Refreshing – and well done for persevering. Gives me hope -:)


  7. […] 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 […]


  8. Really helpful. Thank you.


  9. Reblogged this on Empty Nest Reflections.


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