Stepping up to the SLT: Part 2

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In this three-part series, school leader Phil Denton is looking at making the step up to a senior leadership post. In part two, he focuses on making your application...

In this three part article I am outlining the experiences I have had in securing senior leadership positions. A successful three-step process for me is as follows:

  1. Searching from the soul.
  2. Applying from the mind.
  3. Interviewing with both.

Last week I detailed how I have used these principles when searching for a post that best suited me. Now, I hope to give you some insights into how you can make a successful application in order to secure an interview.

I am drawing upon my own successful experiences of applying for posts. I have also taken part in programmes relating to the application process. The following advice is also based on input from professionals on the NPQH and Future Leaders development programmes.

First thing’s first

Your application form may well be the first thing that a selection panel reviews – it usually is. Ensure that you have downloaded the correct form as detailed in the job advert. As a Catholic school leader there is a specific form required and often I find that this can be replaced with an application form from the TES or a random one. These things do matter and errors with incorrect forms can discount you from the process before you even get a chance to sell yourself.

The person reading your application will be looking to see if you have the relevant experience and qualifications. Make it clear that you do and keep your information concise.

You must check thoroughly to ensure there are no errors. I would certainly suggest having a trusted colleague or friend review the spelling, punctuation and grammar. You also need to ensure that you have included all of your qualifications with grades.

Where the cover letter is concerned, again check that you have read the limits for things like word count, font size and often font type to ensure that you comply with the school’s requirements.

Ultimately, the simple rules for application forms are: be clear, be concise and have your form checked by someone you know and can trust.

Putting yourself on a page, or two

The letter you write must distinguish you from the rest. It has got to paint a picture to the reader. Your letter must tell the story of your character, experience and beliefs. It must make it clear what your core principles are in a way that is easy to read and backed up with examples of your success. Quite simply, this is often the most important single aspect of any interview process.
Interview panels, who often select as well, will be looking for a certain type of person with qualities and experiences that they feel will enhance their school.

Before you begin writing your letter, have the job specification by your side to ensure that you meet all of the essentials and the majority of the desirables. Then you need to be clear about the person you wish to represent to the selection panel.

You might write a paragraph which outlines your core character and vision for this role. Identify these key features – no more than three or four – and then use this as the anchor for your letter.
You must keep coming back to this vision to ensure there is an authenticity to your letter. If you are successful in being invited to interview, the panel will then be looking for these core values and characteristics to be demonstrated verbally and through tasks.

First paragraph

Start by naming the school and getting straight to the reason you have applied. Talk about the children of that school and the community that you will be looking to enhance life chances for.
Reference the mission of the school and show that you know why you and this school are a good match. I would suggest not explicitly saying this, but instead conveying it implicitly through a clear link between your unique selling points and the school’s mission and values.

So what?

This is the question you should be asking at the end of each paragraph. Essentially you will be outlining your skills, qualities and characteristics, but don’t forget to ask yourself: “So what?”.
For example, you have led on teaching and learning in your department or at a senior level. You have planned various CPD sessions, delivered INSET and carried out lesson observations. So what?

You need to explain the impact that this has had. You can use percentage increases in good lessons or demonstrable impact in the improved outcomes of the school. You could reference feedback you have had from external agencies, quotes from Ofsted reports or the like.

As the selection panel reads your letter they should be taken on a walk through the successes you have had. They should be able to picture the impact that you have had across the school.
In addition, they should see how this completely links up with principles you have set out in your opening paragraph. Finally, they should be told how you will bring such work to their school and what the impact will then be.

It’s not all about you

If you are stepping up to headship or any senior role, it is crucial that you show an understanding that you won’t be physically delivering each aspect of the role. You must lead others. They must buy-in to your ideas and then drive programmes forward with your direction.

You must give examples of these skills in action and explain how you have led others to success. This must be balanced with humility and an expression that you can lead others, but that you do not abdicate responsibility.

If you organise the duty rota, explain how you get out there and do it yourself. If you drive outcomes, explain how you deliver the actions yourself that you are requesting from others. Again, staying with the principals you have already outlined, explain how you can lead and be someone who will be followed by colleagues.

Generate excitement

Every process has a sense of trepidation and excitement in equal measure. You need to move the panel more toward the excitement side of this equation by allaying fears. Do this by clearly explaining how your experience and skills could point to a bright future for their school.

If you want to see this done wonderfully, have a look at the TED talk from Rita F Pierson. She masters conveying passion through a narrative grounded in actions and impact. If you can reference key areas of development in the school then this too will be a powerful tool to show how you might just be the right fit and certainly worth calling to interview.

Wrapping things up

You may wish to finish with a quote, a final pitch or a promise relating to what the school can expect from you. Whatever it is, remember that it is often the last statement that sticks in the mind of the panel. Ensure it demonstrates how you have linked up all the points given to your underlying beliefs and character. Finally, check through your letter to ensure you have stuck to your principles, focused on the school and of course the students that attend.

My last piece of advice would be that if a school is not worth an individual letter with all of the above considered for a good amount of time, then do not apply. If you have all of the elements detailed then, as we say in Wigan, “what’s for you, doesn’t go by you”!

In the final piece of this series next week I will share my experiences and thoughts on common set-ups for senior leader interviews. In the meantime, I am always willing to help colleagues either via email or via Twitter.

  • Phil Denton is head of school (headteacher designate from September) at St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk. You can email him at or follow on Twitter @Phil_TRFC. You can read his previous articles for SecEd via His final article in this series will publish on June 28.

Further information

Rita F Pierson’s TED Talk (May 2013):


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