You don’t have to be a megalomaniac to work here, but it helps.

perfect-candidateAre you sick and tired of slogging it out in the classroom? Do you long for the chance to have your own office complete with swivel chair and internal lock? Would you rather be giving the orders than following them?


Then it sounds like you’re ready for headship!

I’m joking, of course. Firstly, if you are tired of working in the classroom then headship probably isn’t for you. Yes, the amount of triple marking you’re required to do reduces by about 100% but there’s plenty of other paperwork to keep you busy. Secondly, as much as having a swivel chair is really cool, don’t expect to have too much uninterrupted swivel-time. As a Head, you may not have a class of thirty kids who want a piece of you every minute of the working day, but, you’ll quickly find that there is an even larger number of people who want immediate and unlimited access to your mind, body and soul. Thirdly, while it’s nice to be in charge, there’s still the inconvenient truth that if you want people to follow your orders you’re going to have spend time, you know, getting them to ‘buy into’ your ideas. This takes time, shrewdness, tact, good communication skills and bribery. (Not necessarily in that order.)

If you are thinking about headship then I’m sure it’s for all the right reasons. (I could list them, but, let’s be honest, it’s only going to be a list of ‘good’ and ‘noble’ things. You’d be better off looking at some job and person specs to see for yourself.)

But, wanting it isn’t enough. You need to get through the interview first. Nobody really likes the interview process. Spending two days with a knotted stomach as you try to appear ‘normal’ to your prospective staff and governors is nobody’s idea of fun. Keeping your paranoia and self-doubt in check as you complete a range of tasks whilst maintaining a confident smile is no walk in the park. On top of that, there’s the awkwardness of meeting the other candidates. In my experience, there are three main types of candidates that you meet during an interview:

  1. The Detective

This candidate will not leave you alone. They seem to have been given a secret task of finding everything out about you. You can’t rest for five minutes between tasks without them trying to suss out whether they’ve got more or less experience than you. They bombard you with questions and follow up each of your answers with a passive-aggressive evaluative comment like ‘Oh, so you’ve only really worked in small schools, that’s nice.’ They then proceed to, ever so casually, ask you how you found each task, in the vain hope that your answer will somehow further their chance of success. A simple way to distract this candidate is to make up a task that isn’t anywhere on the itinerary – ‘I thought it was very sneaky of them to add making a call to the LADO in the middle of the data task’ – and notice how quickly they quieten down as they wonder why they haven’t been asked to do that yet.

  1. The Professional

This person is all about making an impression. They arrive at the school three hours before anyone else, just so they can shake every staff member’s hand in the carpark before school starts. They meet and greet the parents. They offer to take the register of the class whose teacher has just rung in sick until the supply teacher arrives. They’ve bought biscuits and a fruit basket for the interview panel. They don’t ask you any questions because they’re too busy helping the caretaker put up the bunting for the Y5 disco (which they’ve also bought a ticket for) whilst memorising every child’s name in preparation for their assembly. At break they can be seen by every member of staff playing catch with a group of children as they just so happened to have chosen the spot in the playground directly outside the staff room window. There isn’t a minute of the day when they’re not showing everyone just how much they ‘live and breathe’ school more than you.

  1. The Square Peg

Not wishing to sound unkind but you have to wonder how some people have got as far in their careers as they have. I mean, we all know that being ‘on interview’ can cause anyone to behave out of character, but this person…wow! They seem blissfully unaware that, with every utterance, they are moving further away from a job offer. Sometimes it’s a case of wrong person/wrong setting. Sometimes, though, you’re left wondering if they’ve ever worked in a school before, or ever interacted with human beings. As a fellow candidate, you could be forgiven for thinking that their bizarre, and at times socially-awkward, behaviour is in fact a brazen tactic to throw you off your game – like critiquing your assembly resources just before you walk on stage. As the day develops, however, and you hear them loudly list all the ways in which this school seems behind the times, or all the reasons why they’ve just got to leave their current school, you begin to realise that, although they may have plenty of chutzpah, they have also raised the hackles of every member of the interview panel.

My advice, when dealing with any of these candidates, is not to be distracted by them. Be pleasant, be polite, and quietly let them crack on. Because your real challenge lies in the interview tasks themselves.

When it comes to headship – or any leadership interview – there isn’t a great deal you can do in advance to put yourself ahead of the game. You will have already researched the school before applying and you may have been required to prepare an assembly, or presentation, in advance. Aside from that, you just need to relax into the day. Easier said than done, considering your timetable will be packed, but if you don’t allow yourself the thinking space to soak up the vibe of the school, how can you properly assess whether you want to work there or not?

Don’t forget, you will be expected to mooch around the school, eat lunch with the children and visit the playground during break time. Don’t, like ‘The Professional’ candidate, treat that as a hoop to dutifully jump through. Don’t feel that you have to go and have really upbeat and enthusiastic conversations with every person you come into contact with. This is not the time to leave a memorable impression on them, it’s a time for them to make an impression on you. Use that time to observe and to listen. What are the people like in this place? What are they up to?  Do you feel you could do some good here? Would you enjoy working in this environment? You still have to be nice! Don’t be a silent weirdo lurking in the shadows; have your conversations with people, but ensure they are beneficial for you.

As for the tasks, well, they’re going to be leadership tasks. They’re probably going to be things you’ve already done in your current setting. There is not a special and secret set of tasks that everyone, apart from you, knows about. Your tasks will most likely be, in no particular order:

Data: identify the strengths and weaknesses and suggest some priorities to work on. It’s not rocket science, just look for the gaps.

Teaching: observe a lesson and give constructive feedback. Tread carefully and make sure you put whatever you say in the feedback in context. (Don’t give a judgement!)

Learning: review some books or a work scrutiny and share your thoughts. Again, avoid making too strong a judgement, and try and link it with other information you’ve had access to, like the data.

Meet the staff: don’t come across as a pillock. Much harder said than done, especially on interview! Try not to try too hard to make them laugh. Adults can see a poor joke coming a mile off, but they’ll probably forgive you because they’ll assume you’re nervous.

Meet the school council: don’t come across as a pillock. Much harder said than done, especially on interview! Remember, try not to try too hard to make them laugh. Kids can see a poor joke coming a mile off and they won’t forgive you.

Hold a meeting: maybe with a pretend disgruntled parent or with a group of staff. Strength, compassion and clarity should see you through safely. If it’s a deliberately delicate/volatile simulation then it will be as tricky as it is in real life, only you’re less likely to be physically assaulted on interview.

Formal interview: relax and allow your experience to answer the questions. Do not just say what you think they want to hear. Tell them what you believe. Back that up with what that’s allowed you to achieve in the past. If you’re not honest about your philosophies, strategies, challenges and successes then they are in danger of appointing an inauthentic version of you.

The hardest part will always be when they want to know about your plans for their future. Again, be honest. Share your evaluations based on what you feel you have learnt about the school so far. But be very clear that you are basing your answers on minimal knowledge. Demonstrate, through your answers, that they can trust you to work with them. Also, ask them. What do they want? Reflect on whether you can deliver that.

Finally, when they ask you if you would accept the post…think before you answer. The right answer is not always ‘yes’.

I don’t enjoy interviews. They are uncomfortable. Half of the time you are in two minds about whether you’re doing the right thing or not. But leadership interviews are not one-way contests with an overall winner. They are a process, and the risks – to the school and interviewee – are far greater if a wrong decision is made at the end of it. Play it straight and true, and, whether you get the job or not, it will be the best decision for everyone.

Go get ‘em!

The tigers who came to tea


I’m sure you all know the story about ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. A family are perfectly happy, going about their day, when a tiger rocks up to the front door and starts behaving in a way that, quite frankly, beggars belief. He wanders around their house as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The sheer brass of the giant feline causes the family to accept his demands without question. He wants a drink. They make him a cup of tea. But that isn’t good enough for the tiger. He has slightly higher expectations. So, they let him drink the entire contents of the teapot. But even that hasn’t quenched the beast’s thirst. This is only achieved after he has drained all the water from the taps. And the family, who now have no means to hydrate themselves, keep clean or maintain any decent levels of sanitation, don’t question it. They don’t protest. They just let the tiger behave in this way because, well, he’s a tiger, isn’t he? A big, loud, confident tiger. Victims of the tiger’s gall, the family continue to cater for his every whim. He eats their dinner, their food in the fridge and all the tins and packets of food in their kitchen cupboards. And all the time he has a look on his face that suggests this is all quite normal, and, hadn’t the silly family realised what it took to entertain a tiger properly? And then, he leaves. You would think the family would now report this gross invasion into their world to the authorities, or, at least take some preventative measures to safeguard against it happening again the future. But no. They are, apparently, enthralled by the tiger and his incredibly high standards of entertaining. To the extent that they buy in some special tiger food in case he pops around again! It is an unbelievable story and one that never fails to shock me no matter how many times I read it.

I read another book recently. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’. It tells the story of a group of teaching tigers who have opened a school. The story is written by many of the tigers who teach at the school and they each have much to say about how they teach and run their school. It runs on similar lines to the children’s story mentioned earlier, insofar as these tiger teachers have higher expectations than everyone else. They are the tap drainers to our tea drinkers. If you expect your children to walk quietly into assembly, they expect silence. If you run a residential trip, they run a boot-camp. If you have high expectations of behaviour, they have no excuses. If you have happy children, theirs are happier. It’s like reading a story written by that friend who must always go one better: you know, you’ve got a headache, they’ve got a tumour, that sort of thing.

The way in which their storybook presents their approaches to education is incredible. I found myself drawn to paragraphs where, after whatever it is they’re writing about (homework, marking, kindness, behaviour, lunch), they write about how this makes their school so special. Paragraphs that begin:

‘One of the things that may strike you when visiting Michaela is how happy the children are.’

‘At Michaela, we highly value adult authority and children’s politeness and respect.’

‘Our mantra is ‘work hard, be kind’’.

It was during these passages that I kept thinking back to the ending of the ‘The tiger who came to tea’. The bit where the family buy a tin of tiger food. These guys think they’re feeding their kids tiger food whilst the rest of us are spoon feeding our pupils ‘whiskers’. They seem unable to grasp the notion that – and forgive the expression Team Michaela – there is more than one way to skin a tiger. These tiger teachers really believe that they are special. I mean, I know we all think our schools are special. But these cats really believe that they are more special!

And I’m not sure why, when, so much of what they’re actually doing is pretty unremarkable. I hate to break it to you, tigers, but a lot of the ‘Michaela Way’ is just a normal way to run a school. That’s not to say that, in my opinion, you seem to lack a level of operational subtlety that I personally feel is vital for running such a complex organisation as a school. I also find the ‘top of the pyramid’ drills a little over zealous for my tastes but, hey, I’m not your target reader am I? Who is I wonder? Is this book’s publication part of your recruitment drive? Is it a ‘Michaela Way’ SEF? Or is it a fairy tale that you can read to yourself at bedtime to help you forget about all the anti-Michaela tweets out there?

Whatever the motive, you’ve written a bold and passionate story about your school. And, do you know what? Loving yourself is not a crime. Being excited about where you work is great. Believing you’re doing good, and making a difference to the world, is what helps get us all out of bed in the morning. But guys, seriously, couldn’t you have kept it to yourself for a bit? Saved it all for your newsletter? Uploaded it onto a blog? Did you really need to write a book about it? Don’t get me wrong,  your school may be fabulous. You may be proved completely right. But not yet. What you’ve done is, you’ve written a gospel when it should have been the first part of a case study.

In writing your book you’ve invited yourself around for tea, presuming that we will gladly give up all our food and drink for you, just because you’ve told us that you are tigers. You have declared superiority through your evangelical self-righteousness and you expect us all to listen and take heed. You can’t see that you are, in fact, sucking on an empty tap as we observe you from a distance, drinking our tea, waiting to see if you’ll make it to breakfast.


Poor leadership? It could be you!


Leadership is beset with barriers. Sadly, the biggest barrier is often the leaders. Schools can provide the perfect environment for ineffective leaders to develop, and, for my money, there are three main causes: fear, hope and time.

I call these the Holy Trinity of poor leadership choices. Wherever there is poor leadership, at least one of these factors will be part of the problem. The fear that you will be judged to be ineffective by your colleagues, your governors, or Ofsted can derail even the most experienced leader. Who can blame them? We are trying to run schools in a world where the bar is being raised in such extreme and unknown ways that it seems, at times, impossible to rely on your experience and professionalism to guide the way. We’re living in the brave new world where previous knowns are now no longer existent. It seems so improbable that you do in fact have the answers, so, you better start doing things differently and, more importantly, you better be seen as the one instigating it all.

A little bit of fear is fine; it can keep you sharp. However, too much fear blunts your ability to lead effectively. You can become fixated on the minutiae of what’s going on in your school rather than what impact it’s all having. You begin to be motivated by the hope that whatever you’ve implemented is going to be the answer. The fear that it might not be the answer debilitates your ability to evaluate it effectively. The fear that you may be held accountable to the failure of the initiative distorts your perception of success.

Consider the possible answers to this question:

What impact have you had on raising children’s achievement through effective feedback?

  1. A) I introduced a set of symbols that are used consistently across the school.
  2. B) I regularly monitor the books to check that the school systems are in place.
  3. C) Children are now expected to respond to feedback.

None of these answers address the actual point in the question and they reek of desperation. The desperation of a leader who wants to prove that they changed something. They have convinced themselves that this is important and, I’ll wager, they wrote a development plan that stated a success criterion would be that the system was different at the end of the year, rather than being able to report that the children are achieving better and that the teachers can implement the changes without having to work until midnight.

There is often a key character trait that these ineffective leaders display: arrogance. They tend to swan around convincing people that they’re Teflon coated super-educators. The only reason their plans could fail, they’ll say to themselves in the mirror, is because their school is full of deadbeat teachers who are unable to carry out their demands. Arrogant leaders have these neat and tidy action plans – that provides them with a much needed false sense of security that they are brilliant – but they are normally unrealistic due to being ‘actions’ driven as opposed to developmental. These leaders desperately want to be seen as the key drivers of change. But scratch away their fragile ego and you’ll see that they are being driven by fear which is skewing their perception of how they can be effective. Fear and false hope fuel their arrogance and prevent them from investigating the impact of implementation and learning lessons from failures, of which, if you are in a school inhabited by humans, there are likely to be many of during the year. What you are left with, is surface level leadership which exists only on the pages of their poorly designed plans.

Then there is the issue of time. I blame ‘smart targets’. This smug ideology that everything has to be broken down into neat little boxes which should all be ticked off by the end of the year. Whoever came up with that phrase either didn’t work in a school or was, quite frankly, a rubbish leader themselves. I’m not saying that having massive unwieldly goals is a responsible thing to do. What I am saying though, is that leaders who shy away from long term (and I mean two-three year) objectives are often those leaders who work in schools where common phrases heard in the staff room are ‘Are we still doing that thing from that inset last year?’ or ‘Oh, we used to do that five years ago.’ Every plan needs a set of checkpoints, and there may be some initiatives that have a definitive entry/exit criteria or indeed a limited shelf-life, but most things keep on going and going and going and going.

Effective leaders need to constantly re-engage with teachers to check how things are going. A teacher’s capacity to teach well can change year on year depending on a variety of contexts. Leaders shouldn’t judge teachers on this, they should expect it! They shouldn’t be surprised when a teacher, or child, is struggling; they should simply find out why and help. This is hard to do if you’re crippled by the fear that by end of the year you will be judged a terrible leader because you didn’t make sure everyone was marking in green.

It’s hard to maintain perspective when you’re in the moment. It’s so tempting to write a beautiful action plan ready for September. It’s so easy to monitor semantics rather than impact. It’s safer to attribute blame rather than face the barriers and help even when it means deviating from your plan. It’s forgivable to be scared and hopeful and worry about the time it’s taking to improve things. But it’s poor leadership to let that govern your instincts and take over your professional judgement.

In short, don’t let the biggest barrier be you.