Securing Headship as a Member of SLT

Posted on May 22, 2014


I’ve blogged on quite a few aspects of my role as a member of two senior leadership teams: from data to line management and human resources, from Ofsted to Teaching Schools, from Student Leadership to Pedagogy.

All of these posts are important to me, but this post is the one that delivers me into the hands of the future, a future which will challenge me more than any of the leadership roles I have taken on in the past nine years. This is the ‘doing’ post that I have most wanted to write, because it is the one that outlines how I managed to take the final steps that led to me being appointed as Headteacher of the wonderful school I have worked in for the past six years, Canons High School.

I want to write this post for two reasons. Firstly to thank the brilliant colleagues and students I have worked with at Canons and the community of twitter educators who have given so much help to me. Secondly to ‘pay it forward’ to those for whom my recent experiences may provide some support or sustenance.

Develop a Headship Backstory
The main thing I have realised in writing my letter of application and in the rigour of the interview process, is that the journey to securing a Headship is that you have to have walked as much of the talk as possible. You need to have been seen to be a Head-in-waiting for a number of years. Assistant and Deputy Headships are wonderful roles in and of themselves, but at some point in the years in which you excel at these roles you have to go beyond the boundaries of your job description. The single most important person who can help you in doing so is your Headteacher.

I have been incredibly fortunate in both of the schools of which I have been a member of SLT to have worked with Headteachers who have encouraged, challenged, enabled and allowed me to do exactly this. Naturally, they have given me significant areas of responsibility within the school, but in addition to this they have given me large amounts of autonomy in how I go about handling that responsibility and have permitted me to go ‘off piste’ on a number of occasions and follow my own areas of interest that don’t sit within my job description.

But although a visionary and/or permissive Headteacher is a boon for their aspirant Deputy, they shouldn’t be a prerequisite: you have to make your own luck in this game. As the member of SLT looking to secure Headship you have to make things happen for yourself and carve out those opportunities. As well as reading any emails from your Head marked “thought this might be of interest”, you need to follow up on these and find more “this might be of interest to me” research articles, blogposts and connections of your own. As well as knowing your brief inside and out, you need to know the work of all of your colleagues on the leadership team (and those on leadership teams elsewhere) as thoroughly as you can muster. After all, no Deputy Head can hit all of the Headteacher Standards through their own area of responsibility alone. And, trust me on this one, it’s a rare governing body that doesn’t revert to the Headteacher Standards when making an appointment for that role.

Seek help from outside your own school
The appointment of a Headteacher is the strangest process of recruitment that can happen in a school because it is the only one that doesn’t involve a Headteacher or Deputy in making the final decision. In most cases the outgoing Head has a very limited role that involves showing prospective external candidates around prior to their application. The rest of the process is either done by the governing body (in consultation with, but not bound by the views of, members of the school staff and external professionals, such as a local Head or local authority representative) or by recruitment consultants.

My point here is that, as an internal candidate, you can’t influence the decision-making process as you can with most other appointments to your school – other than by your aforementioned reputation as a Head-in-waiting – which can make the process a very lonely one, especially when you have colleagues telling you that “it’ll be fine” or that “you have nothing to worry about”, just as you are conjuring up all sorts of reasons why it won’t be fine, why there is plenty to worry about and why they won’t appoint you.

The solution, for me, was to take to the Direct Messages on twitter. I contacted as many Heads as I could think of and, crucially, as many school governors and consultants as I could to ask for their advice. The response was phenomenal. Tom Sherrington and Vic Goddard took time out of their professional and personal lives respectively to speak with me on the phone to give me their internal-candidate-made-Heads perspective on the process (and beyond, which was a major bonus). Jill Berry carefully read through and thoroughly questioned two drafts of my application letter (see what I did there Jill?!) and helped me improve it beyond all measure. Raj Unsworth, Rachel Orr, Old Primary Head, Julia Skinner, Stephen Tierney, John Tomsett, Steve Thursby, Kate Davies and others I’ve probably forgotten shared interview questions (I’ve corralled them all here) and supported me from the shadows of DMs whilst I stayed out of the sunshine of the timeline. And then there was Stuart Lock, who shared and shared and cared and cared at every step of the way. All were needed, intellectually, experientially, socially and emotionally and I shan’t forget their contributions in any great hurry.

Weave the ‘golden thread’ from your ethos to your interview
In the first draft of my application letter I focused too much on outlining the work I have done as a Deputy, at the expense of clearly answering the ‘why me?’ question (or rather, the ‘why him?’ question, as the governors would see it) and the ‘what will he do?’ question. I made the assumption that, as an internal candidate, the governors would know the ethos underpinning my work in school and would be able to guess at where this ethos would lead me in terms of actions in the future. I showed the application to my current Head, an Assistant Head I work very closely with, my partner and Jill Berry. All of them said the same thing in a number of ways: what’s your vision and what are your plans?

In an odd way it was a tough message to take. After all, I like to think that my ethos and vision don’t need to be written down – they infuse pretty much everything I tweet, blog, speak and do (not to mention the fact that I had spent days on the application letter already, and now knew I had to perform major surgery on it once again). But it was the best message I could have been given, because it made me understand that an internal candidate can no more rely upon what they have done than an external candidate can. Instead a member of SLT looking to secure an internal appointment to Headship needs to find the golden threads woven through what they have achieved, pick them out for all to see and weave them into a mind’s eye picture of what will be should they be appointed.

In practical terms, this meant taking each section of my first draft and cutting away the non-golden threads (the parts I would have the chance to elaborate upon in interview). For each section I added a prologue to pin down the ‘golden thread’ – linked to the governors’ desire to see the school move from being an outstanding one to a great one – and a closing sentence or two to outline briefly the ‘big picture’ of what my ‘golden threads’ would lead me to add, improve or remove as a Head.

The finished letter was so much better than I could have ever hoped to have written unaided and put me in a far more confident frame of mind for the actual interview process. More importantly, I soon came to realise that the ‘golden threads’ had not completely unwound over the course of the letter. As I planned my presentation for the interview day I picked up these threads by taking each of the ‘big picture’ statements I had made about what I would look to achieve as a Head and unravelled them into a sequence of possible smaller actions, a manifesto of sorts, rooted in some coherent values to create a real sense of vision.

I then ran these ideas past my Deputy Head colleagues who I knew wouldn’t be witnessing the presentation but who would be working with me to make the changes, if I were to be appointed. Their feedback was helpful in that none of what I was suggesting surprised them and that the whole tapestry resonated with what they knew of me, which was just what I needed to hear. I’d managed to capture my golden threads.

I don’t wish to labour this section unnecessarily but there is one more way in which finding these ‘golden threads’ helped me secure the Headship at Canons. On the evening before the interviews, I cocked a snook at the interview questions sent to me by others to identify the most common ones and the most challenging ones for me. I soon found in scribbling down how I would like to respond to them that the threads were waiting for me to pick them up again. The answers I wanted to give were wrapped up in the big picture of the letter is written and the presentation I’d prepared. As a result I quickly elected to put aside the questions and enjoy the sunshine with Hélène and the kids, probably the wisest decision I made in the whole of this process. Sure enough, during four panel interviews over the two days, the ‘golden threads’ gave me more than enough help, whilst conveying to the governors a sense of joined-up thinking about all of the different elements of my history at the school, my application and my responses on interview.

Hold your nerve…as best you can…and try to enjoy it
Securing Headship as a member of SLT is not without threats to one’s wellbeing. I had two particularly dark moments in the process. The first of these came during the limbo period of time between handing in my letter of application (on Thursday) and hearing that I had secured an interview (on Tuesday). The feeling of not being in control sits uneasily with me at the best of times, but coupled with an increasingly gnawing thought that I might not be shortlisted, it became excruciating and debilitating. The lowest moment was on the Tuesday afternoon when I had to chair an SLT meeting knowing that short listing was taking place, attend a governors meeting knowing that the short listing was complete (they were masters of the poker face, one and all) and drive home not knowing if I’d been shortlisted. The relief when the email arrived inviting me to interview was beyond palpable.

From that moment until the following Monday morning, the first day of the interview process, it was like a weight had been lifted because the process was back in my hands. It was only then that I dared to tempt fate and begin planning my presentation, begin seeking the support I mentioned above and begin thinking about likely interview questions. I smiled all week, or at least until the day of the interview.

It’s amazing what can throw you when something you want so much is on the line. On Monday 20th May it was inexplicably bad traffic that did it for me. I’d set off early enough that morning for there to be no worries about making it on time, but the extra fifteen minutes boxed into my car was tortuous. The rear view mirror captured a colleague similarly trapped, which ordinarily would be reassuring but didn’t help, and why the radio DJs had conspired to play non-uplifting choons seemed like a conspiracy of the highest order (and ordinarily I love Creep by Radiohead!!) or, at the very least, a sign of bad omens at play.

A knotted stomach is never the best feeling heading into an interview process and this wasn’t helped by being the only internal candidate alongside three externals keen to ask questions of me about the school in the half hour we had alone together (in every sense of the phrase) prior to the start of events. Consequently, I made a faltering start with my carefully crafted presentation, focusing more at one point on the very visible and seemingly sprinting stopwatches staring at me from my audience’s iPads, than upon the words faltering from my mouth. A twenty minute observation of a colleague, followed immediately by a ten minute feedback session, felt false and I was left uncertain of whether asking questions (as opposed to telling him what was what) and giving him no judgment grade was playing well with the two co-observers.

And then came the Pedagogy Panel interview questions and the tectonic plates ceased shifting beneath my feet. Here I was on familiar and stable ground and here I regained some element of surefootededness that stayed with me through the rest of the process. I even began to smile, and breathe, and relish being in the privileged position of putting forward a possible future for this amazing school. By the time I got to my next challenge, a task with students, I was able to doff my jacket, roll up my sleeves and loosen my tie (my normal disposition at work). And whether I’d have been given the job or not, I at least knew that the deciding governors would have seen the real me along the way.

In reality it hadn’t taken me long (although it felt like an eternity) and the feedback from the first two tasks was more positive than I’d expected, but finding my karma made me calmer in a way I have never experienced before on interview (I’ve had a pretty chequered past on this front that one day I’ll blog about). The best feedback I had from the two days was that I’d looked like I really enjoyed it. I only wish I could bottle that recipe up and give it away (hence my writing this post, I guess).

Be prepared for the kitchen sink
There were eight assessed elements to the interview day. As well as the presentation (How would you lead Canons from outstanding to great?), the observation and feedback task, the pedagogy interview panel and the task with students (find out what they would want to see changed about the school), I had panel interviews on partnerships and leadership & management, a written task on finance (unpicking the budget for this year and analysing changes from the previous year) and the final interview with the lead governors. The day passed with breathtaking speed and my brain had to cope with sudden switches in audience and focus every 35 minutes, leaving my utterly exhausted and, since Wednesday last week, victim to the worst cold I’ve had for many years.

Perhaps the oddest elements of the day came from being the internal candidate. The choice of whether to sign in as a visitor or not perplexed me at the start of the day (I did, for the sake of equality) and the tour of the school with Y7 students, one of whom I teach, was amusing (but a lovely chance to chat further with them about their thoughts on the school). At lunch we had a non-assessed, informal (yeah, right!) opportunity to meet with school leaders and governors, during which the external candidates rightly networked furiously. I tried my best, spending time with parent governors with whom I had had less contact, but it felt weird (for them as much as me I suspect).

An aside about being the internal candidate
Perhaps the most important piece of feedback I had from the utterly generous Jill Berry was that the initial draft of my application didn’t sell the benefits of being an internal candidate. She told me that I could bet my bottom dollar that the external candidates would be selling their newness to the school (a fresh pair of eyes, the ability to be seen as the Head without any prior baggage and a list of successful policies brought from their current environment to enrich the school) to their fullest.

As a direct result I added the benefits of being an internal candidate (knowledge of the staff, students and routines of the school, continuity through change and change through continuity and a track record of success within the specific context of Canons) to my application letter and hammered them home throughout my interview. I think I would have been too cautious (shy? guilty?) in doing so had she not advised me to do so. Being the member of SLT looking to secure the Headship of your own school is very much a double-edged sword. Be sure to swing it in the right direction every time, because if there are any doubts about how you have conducted your role in school, be certain that it will be swung at you to test your mettle and test the metal of your armour. Which leads me to my final section about the day…

Securing Headship as a social-media savvy candidate
If you’re reading this blogpost and have made it to the bitter end, there’s a good chance that you are a social media savvy individual and that you are contemplating Headship at some point in the future. I want to finish this post with my recollection of possibly the most personally challenging part of the process I faced. On the second day of the interview, with only myself remaining, I was asked a question by the Head of a local school that stunned me (although looking back now it should have been obvious all along) and threatened the calmness I had managed to conjure.

Head: (without a hint of a smile) What would you say the risks are to Canons of your social media presence? In particular, what would you say to those who say you are an SLT-basher and those who say you are never off twitter?

Me: (sharp intake of breath) Erm… (Attempting humour) I think you’ve just outlined the risks right there!

Governors: (ripple of mirth)

Me: (relieved the joke went well) First of all, I’d say that I’m not an SLT-basher, but I do have strong opinions on what is right and what is wrong about the actions we take as senior leaders, and that sometimes we can forget how our actions have consequences for the staff we lead, in classrooms lesson-in and lesson-out. But I apply that honesty to myself, and would apply it to others on SLT if appointed Head. That that is done on social media means that others will be able to hold me to it when faced with the choices I make as a Head.

Governors: (murmuring assent)

Me: (beginning to relax) As for the issue of always tweeting: there have been significant advantages to Canons that have come from the contacts I have made through twitter and blogging, not least of all our membership of NTEN and relationship with the Teacher Development Trust (heads off into explanation of these benefits…)

Head: (wryly smiling now, but hiding it well) But what about the fact that you have merged your personal twitter account with your professional status?

Me: I did start with a professional account and locked down my personal one, but it’s impossible to separate the professional and personal in any element of life, not least of all twitter. I found that having professional interactions as @CanonsOPP led to my own personal views coming across as those of the school, which can’t be right. I felt that the more honest way of doing things was to tweet professionally from my personal account, and I’m happy to be judged as an individual on that basis.

Governors: (nodding)

Me: Of course, what I tweet as a Head may change if it is appropriate to be more circumspect, just as what I tweet as a Deputy is appropriate in my judgment. But given how social media work, I hope that I will be able to continue tweeting honestly. I will always do what is best for the school. That’s why I want to be Headteacher.

Head: (smiling warmly now) Thank you.

Governor: Fascinating.

Me: (exhales sharply).

I write this exchange as verbatim as I can for one reason only, which is to reassure those social media savvy potential candidates for Headship that a public persona via twitter and blogging, whilst not everyone’s cup of tea, can be (should be? must be?) a strength of your candidacy and not a weakness. And that blending the personal with the professional online is no different than doing so with the colleagues on your team or the staff around your school: It is human nature and human nature at its finest. Be safe, for sure, but be yourself too. To paraphrase the wise old quote, if it’s the kind of school that matters to you, they won’t mind what you tweet. But if it’s the kind of school that minds what you tweet, then it doesn’t matter if they won’t appoint you for it.

Remember the Headteacher you needed before you became SLT
I feel hugely proud and fortunate to have been appointed from within as Headteacher of Canons, a school I have come to love. No amount of saying it will ever convey how much I mean that sentence. In preparing for the application and interview I shrugged off suggestions that I should ‘say what they want to hear, then do what you want to do’ given by well-intentioned people. Instead I put forward an agenda for the future of the school that would feel quite at home amongst the posts on this blogsite. My challenge over the coming weeks, months and years is to prove that these were much more than fine words and noble intentions.

I mentioned earlier about the oddness of the appointment of a Head: in the hands of governors advised by the staff and students of the school. Perhaps my favourite part of this process was the way staff and students from all layers of the nominal school hierarchy were the ones making the decisions about each of the elements of the day, helping governors to make a choice that would work for the school as it is lived every day. A Head of Department I have line managed for years was the ‘go to guy’ in terms of the organisation of the day, and watching how seamlessly he made it work in the interests of the school and the people within it was the memory I’ll take away and keep most vividly in my mind.

I’m guessing that it’s easy for Heads to come to think of themselves as the personification of the school. I have already been labelled with the epithets of ‘boss’, ‘gaffer’ and ‘glorious leader’ (okay I made that last one up, but it has a certain ring to it!) and there have already been some major decisions-to-be-made-for-September coming my way. But for two days of interviews, and for nearly a month beforehand during the application process, I felt anything but the personification of the school. I felt vulnerable and uncertain and, when offered the job, extremely lucky. I immediately went and stood on the school field. It was lunchtime and I watched as the students played football, chased each other and sat chatting in groups whilst the staff supervised them. Inside all I could think of was how badly I could get this wrong for all of them, staff and students alike, and how much faith was being placed in me by those who had had a say in the day. It was not dissimilar to the feelings I had after the birth of my daughter: joy and trepidation all rolled up into a single ball.

I hope I never lose that feeling, however vulnerable and uncertain it makes me feel. I hope I get reminders of it every day from those who really personify the school. I hope that those who had a voice in selecting me feel just as confident in using it once I am in post. Most of all, I hope I have the sense to listen and act when they do so.

Here again is the link to the Headship Interview Questions corralled from twitter sources which were not in this post originally.