1999 seems a long time ago – but it was then that I made my first application for a headship. It was a bit of a false start as I actually withdrew the application after visiting 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. After not getting through to the second day for the first post I 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 13 years. Here is my advice for those applying for the first time.
Make sure your vision matches the school
It's interesting to reflect back on the only two experiences I have of being interviewed for a 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, however, 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 – it is about matching your vision and aspirations with those of the school and governors that you will be working for. If the two aren't aligned it will be like being in a boat with everyone rowing in a different direction – meaning the governors and headteacher are in for a torrid time. Governing bodies aren't always confident in articulating their own vision, but they do know an engaging and inspiring one when they hear it. If you can't articulate your vision to a friend or relative – or to yourself in the mirror – you are not yet ready to lead a school.
You can't ever be truly prepared – but 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; an awareness of the 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.
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. And yet, over the past 13 years, I have had overall responsibility for £30m of capital building programmes and £80m 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; this is what you bring to genuine and authentic leadership, and it has already got you to deputy headship.
Make fewer but better applications
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 tailored 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.
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 had 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. I was doing something different while showing them 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 and keep a record of questions asked and tasks given.
And good luck – I hope the right school is out there for you.
Stephen Tierney is executive headteacher at Christ the King Catholic Primary School & St Mary's Catholic College. Previously he was headteacher of St. Mary's Catholic College, Blackpool for the past 13 years. He blogs at Leading Learner and tweets as @LeadingLearner
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A set of three twilight sessions to develop new senior leaders into their roles as Assistant Headteachers.
This course is hosted at local schools in St Albans and Harpenden. You will be required to attend the following twilight sessions which run from 4.00pm to 5.30pm:
- Monday, 25th September 2017 at Sandringham School
- Monday, 30th October 2017 at Samuel Ryder Academy
- Tuesday, 21st November 2017 at Sandringham School
Who is this course for?
- Teachers new to Assistant Headteacher positions
- Teachers completing Associate Assistant Headteacher positions
What are the objectives or outcomes?
On this programme participants will:
- Network with other senior leaders from local alliance schools
- Develop strategies for becoming an outstanding school leader
- Become confident in developing initiatives and systems for effective school management
Areas of focus
The course will include:
- Consideration of leadership in different contexts.
- Efficient systems and effective time management as a senior leader.
- Strategies for leading change and whole school improvement.
Meet the facilitators:
Glen Pettengell is Deputy Headteacher at Roundwood Park School (RPS), serving in his sixth school, having been a Headteacher and an Ofsted Inspector along the way.
After 12 year of senior leadership, Glen has led and managed all the main areas of whole school responsibility and successfully introduced significant change in a number of different contexts; including school to school support with other senior leaders.
Lucy Miles has been on the SLT at Samuel Ryder Academy since its inception in 2012, firstly as an Assistant Headteacher and more recently as Deputy Headteacher. Lucy’s responsibilities include the development of T&L and CPD for staff of all phases of the all through academy.
Her responsibility for T&L has led to her close involvement with the ATSA with initiatives such as the Women in Leadership programme and the annual ATSA conferences.