Moving up the ladder: Applying to leadership positions

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
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When you’re looking to move up the leadership ladder, you will need to shout a bit louder about your qualities. Headteacher John Rutter offers his advice on what to do – and what not to do...

Undeniably you may have the experience and the knowledge to move up the leadership ladder but, without being able to sell yourself a little bit, this is unlikely ever to happen.

We teachers are fantastic at self-deprecation but when it comes to talking about our successes, abilities and qualities we can be as lacking in the necessary skills as the pupils we teach. As a headteacher I see lots of application forms and meet lots of people wanting to move on in my school and, occasionally, I despair at some things that are written and sent to me, or said to me in person.

So, in the hope of saving myself, my leadership colleagues and, most importantly, you the time expended on poor preparation when looking for a senior role, I offer you my top tips for completing your application and for creating a good impression before you get invited to interview – this information will help get you there (but then it’s all still down to you).

The perfect application form

Whether a standard application form (which we have for most posts in Scotland) or a CV and covering letter, this is the entry to the heart and soul of your prospective employer so make sure it is good.

Do not cut and paste from a previous application (it is remarkably easy to spot). Tailor your words to the particular circumstances of the school itself. Remember – the person reading your application will have a few dozen other urgent things on their desk to do today so will be looking for any excuse to reject you out of hand.

The first thing they will see will probably be your email address:, and are unlikely to be deemed of sufficient gravitas (unless you are lucky enough to be applying to sithlord1). If you haven’t changed your email address since the hilarious one you picked as an 18-year-old undergraduate then set up a new account.

Remember to get the basics right, so include your education and qualifications back as far as you think relevant – I have seen applications which have no teaching qualification listed so, while I would assume anyone applying would have one, the form still goes in the bin. Other qualifications and employment history need listing and you must have two referees. If one of these is not your current headteacher it will raise questions in the mind of whoever is reading it.

The personal statement or covering letter is your chance to wax lyrical about your qualities and experience. It is important that this is aimed at the specific job description and includes knowledge of the school you are applying for from your background reading.
Most importantly, talk about the impact of your teaching on the learning of your pupils, your receptiveness to innovative methods and how keen you are to look outwards beyond your school for effective practice.

For senior management roles you will also need to outline the whole-school initiatives you have been involved in, your supreme people management skills and how you have engaged with the wider school community including parents.

And, on a practical note, check your application before submitting (and give it to somebody else to check as well). There are very few excuses, in the world of spell checker, for incorrectly spelt words or poor punctuation – inconsistent use of capitals and inappropriate use of semi-colons and colons all show a poor attention to detail, while incorrect apostrophes in words such as “1970’s” will most likely cause irrational anger in the reader you are trying to impress.

Finally, not everything has to be in bullet points or lists and writing in capital letters will just look as if you are really annoyed.

The school visit

One way, I have found, to improve your chances of getting through the door is to contact the school and, if you live close enough for this to be practicable, to ask to come in for a visit.

There is some debate as to whether this should be done before or after being offered an interview. Recently I had an applicant for a depute’s job who said they had been advised not to get in touch at all, but I would view the school visit as an integral part of the application process.

If you can’t visit at least phone with some pertinent questions. It puts your name in the mind of those who you would like to offer you a job and it will also help you to decide if this is the school for you. It could save you a lot of time and effort for all concerned.

It is likely that, for a senior management role, the person who shows you around will be the headteacher. So, even though you are there to ask questions and soak up the ethos, it is important to have done some research already.

There is little point asking your host about exam results or levels of deprivation in the surrounding community if this is information that could already have been gleaned from the online standards and qualities report.

By consulting the available documents beforehand you can tailor your questions to ask for elaboration rather than the basic facts.

Do not use the visit as an opportunity to tell the headteacher what a great job they are doing and how well the school is moving on under their leadership – sycophancy is very rarely viewed as a virtue by school leaders.

Everyone you meet in the school is important. You can be pretty sure that, as soon as you leave, the office staff will be commenting on how nicely/poorly you treated them. Say hello to members of staff as you pass and, if you are introduced, smile politely and ask relevant, non-intrusive questions which will not put anybody in a bad light (i.e. not “How much support do you get for disciplinary matters from senior management?”).

In any discussions, ensure it comes across exactly how pupil-centred you are. No matter what role in the school you are looking for, we are all teachers and, if it isn’t obvious that you love children, you are not going to get very far. At some point, ensure you mention how wonderful the ones in the school all seem.

Immerse yourself in the atmosphere

The school visit is your best opportunity to discover whether your face will fit so soak up the atmosphere and think about how your own vision and values match those of the place where you’re looking to spend your working life.

If you have a fairly relaxed view of acceptable behaviour then the overly prescriptive whole-school discipline policy may not fit with your more liberal attitude.

I am in the very fortunate position of being in a school that felt “right” for me the moment I walked in the door. Other colleagues I have employed have felt exactly the same. However, I know that my school is not right for everyone – the school visit is the main opportunity to really find this out.

Have you been here before?

Think very carefully if you are returning to a school you previously worked in and looking for a management role. On the school visit you are more than likely to bump in to former colleagues.

If they greet you with hugs and kisses as if you were a long-lost friend then you are probably going to fit in quite well. If the brief meeting elicits only grunts or, worse, outright disdain (admittedly, this will depend on the member of staff and their position in the school), then you may be better off elsewhere.

At least the fact that this may well not be the school for you will be established at this stage.

And finally...

Finally, there are no circumstances when the phrase “I really didn’t expect it to be like this”, exclaimed in a disbelieving voice, is acceptable. School leaders work very hard to enhance the reputations of their school and memories of past horrors haunt them over the years. As a prospective member of the school you too will be working to dispel such myths – make sure the headteacher knows that you never believed them in the first place.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School.


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