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Preparing and Applying for Your First Headship

I wrote the following article for the Guardian.  I have added a few of the tweets, I got when I used twitter to get some ideas, on what people thought was the best advice for applicants for their first headship.

Nineteen ninety nine seems a long time ago but it was then I made my first application for a headship.  It was a bit of a false start as I actually withdrew the application having visited the school.  This is no reflection on the school, which was excellent, but I hadn’t fully thought through uprooting my whole family and moving to a different part of the country.  My next applications were more considered and after not getting through to the second day of the first post I was interviewed for I was the only person taken through to the second day at St. Mary’s Catholic College, where I have served as Headteacher for the last thirteen years. 

The Need to Match the Visions

Vision Tweets

It’s interesting reflecting back on the only two experiences I have of being interviewed for headship.  The feedback from the first school was that they thought I was far too radical in my thinking and not in touch with reality.  They may have been right.  At St. Mary’s they were looking for a leader who would help develop a new vision for the school and lead it into the 21st Century.  This isn’t about good school/bad school or good applicant/bad applicant, this is about matching your vision and aspirations with those of the school and governors that you will be working with and for.  If the visions don’t match the school, governors and headteacher are all in for a torrid time.  Imagine being in a boat with everyone rowing in a different direction, that is conflicting visions for you.  Governing bodies aren’t always confident or sure in articulating their vision but they know an engaging and inspiring vision when they hear one.  This is a key area for any aspiring headteacher to consider.  If you can’t articulate your vision to a friend or relative or yourself in the mirror you are not yet ready to lead a school.

Are You Ever Ready?  You’ll learn. 

With the exception of vision I think that you have to accept that there is no preparation for headship quite like actually being a headteacher.  You need a good knowledge of: how schools work; structures and systems that ensure good order and high standards of teaching & learning; the ability to work with and influence people and an abundance of resilience.

Be Yourself

What I knew about premises and finance, when I became a headteacher, you could write on the back of an envelope and a not very big one at that.  Over the past thirteen years I have had overall responsibility for £30 million of capital building programmes and £80 million of recurrent funding.  Another worry for applicants can be personnel issues that go beyond the difficult conversation into formal procedures.  Outside of a few difficult meetings, where I had been alongside the headteacher as a “professional development opportunity”, again my experience was limited.  Remember to follow the policy, make sure you have a good HR provider and be calm and balanced in your approach, you will grow in confidence with experience in time.

Headship is a Team Game

I hope we have eventually given up on the myth of the heroic headteacher who gallops in to save the day single handed.  Headship is now more about the team than simply the individual.  Make sure you meet the senior leadership team of the school you are applying for and consider whether this is a group you can work with.  I would tend to keep it social and just get a feel for the group and start to build the relationships.  Most of all be yourself, it is who you bring to genuine and authentic leadership, and it has already got you to deputy headship.

Fewer Better Applications

Don't get the wrong job

A few high quality applications are more likely to succeed that trying to send in a generic application for lots of headships.  This is a major decision and you have to get it right.  Research the school well, visit it prior to applying if you can and make sure the application is totally personalised to the school.  We recently appointed three assistant headteachers at St. Mary’s.  All of them, along with a number of other potential applicants, visited the school before applying and took the time to write highly personalised letters.  These are the people you want working at your school, these are the type of people you want leading your school.

Interview Days

This is likely to be a pretty gruelling few days with a series of panel interviews, data tasks and presentations.  I was successfully interviewed for the Executive Headship of St. Mary’s Catholic College and Christ the King Catholic Primary School, earlier this year, but I had no idea how many other candidates would be invited for interview.  The poor governors may have to listen to presentations all afternoon.  I wanted to make the point that if we wanted to be outstanding we were going to have to do something different and that the skills I had acquired as a secondary headteacher would be transferable to the Executive Headteacher role.  The opening two minutes of my presentation was a card sort of the characteristics of outstanding primary and secondary schools taken from two Ofsted documents.  It was only after they had sorted them into a couple of groups and noticed all the repetition that I explained where they had come from.  Doing something different and my skills are transferable.  Please don’t fall into the trap of gimmicks but look for the opportunity to let your light shine out from the crowd.  If you’re not successful then maybe it just wasn’t the job for you.  Remember to learn from each experience, keep a record of questions asked and tasks given and good luck, I hope the right school is out there for you.

If successful you may be interested in the post, “First Hundred Days of Headship”.

And here are a cryptic one (not sure what Dave Carter is up to – I can now reveal it was a reference to the early entry announcement and the challenges facing Headteachers.) and an out take:

Good Week to Ask

Move to Finland




  1. Pingback: 365 days in my shoes Day 290 | high heels and high notes - October 17, 2013

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