Stepping up to the SLT: Part 3

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

ln the final article of his three-part series on making the step up to a senior leadership post, school leader Phil Denton discusses how to succeed when interviewing for an SLT post

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.

I have already detailed how I have implemented step one when searching for a post that best suited me and last week I discussed how to make effective application.

We now arrive at the interview stage – those charged and tiring days which fill us with a cocktail of emotions from start to finish. There is the nervousness of the unknown mixed with the sprinkle of excitement for what might be. Managing these emotions is your first challenge for the day.

Before you pull into the car park

Like any performance, you need to prepare. There are plenty of ways in which this can be done. First of all, research. Make sure you have read through the school website, understand the current data picture, review the Department for Education page, Ofsted report and seek out any recent media either social or local.

This will give you a flavour of the recent history, the reputation of the school and the areas that they may well be looking to improve in.

You should also be scouring the website to get an impression of the school culture. Ask yourself, what does this school value? What are the students engaged in? Is this the type of environment you want to work in? As mentioned in the previous articles, a pre-application visit can be crucial and is something you should definitely undertake.

What to expect as you arrive

Senior leader posts are unlike your main scale or even head of department interviews. It is likely that these posts will be high-profile and that the entire staff will be looking to make a quick judgement. After all, the person you are could have a significant impact upon their working life.

If you are coming from an internal middle leadership role, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming, particularly with headship posts, when potential colleagues become nervous or apprehensive around you. And if you are an external candidate, quite often there will be an internal candidate too, which can be off-putting too.

Either way, you cannot let this dominate your thoughts as you really have no way of knowing if this will have an influence on the final decision. So just try to remain positive.

As you arrive, you will likely meet the receptionist, other people arriving and the children of course. Here you can make a huge impression which must not be underestimated. I prepare by mentally scripting these initial interactions. Think about the individuals you will meet and what sort of brief conversations you may undertake. As a general rule, it is always good to ask questions and then listen.

There will then be the awkward wait with other candidates before entering the greeting room. Again, be prepared to give a 30-second blurb about yourself once the head has introduced you to the school. Again, this is important so think how you would describe yourself and your career in a brief manner.

What you will be asked to do

Senior leadership interviews look to examine your wider understanding of a school. They seek to determine if you are capable of leading others while also leading by example. Consider what your leadership style is and how you can articulate this in a way that paints a picture for those interviewing. As part of the process, it is likely that you will have tasks to complete and panel interviews...

Data task

A simple data sheet – previously RAISE was used but now it is more likely that it will be the new Analysing School Performance or internal data from systems such as SIMs, SISRA or 4Matrix.

Remember you are looking for patterns and key details that would prompt you to act. Find out what data system they use prior to visiting. If you are confident with data just be clear on the main priorities.

If you are less confident with data, do not worry, this is not out of the ordinary. However, it’s a good idea to find someone who is adept with data and practise together with a few different tasks before the interview.

When answering the challenge during your interview, be clear on the actions you may take, the further evidence you would check before jumping into anything and the evaluations you would undertake.


You will meet various groups of people who will test your knowledge on the wider life of the school. The panels will likely focus on:

  • Teaching and learning.
  • Achievement and outcomes.
  • The wider life of the school.
  • Vision and ethos.
  • The students.

There is not a great deal of difference in terms of the set up; indeed there is not a great deal of difference in what people are looking for. You should look to be confident and can prepare by speaking with people who have expertise in these various areas. You do not need to be an expert in every area, but you have to have an awareness as to the experience you have and what you could offer to enhance their current processes.


Often you will be asked to lead an assembly and give a strong message to pupils. Consider your structure and engage pupils in a narrative that they can relate to.

For me, I often find a story/narrative works best. Look to have a student element too. Ask the school if they could nominate a couple of students who may be confident enough to read something – but obviously check with the school that this is okay. It will show your willingness to engage with students (and the school’s willingness to support you).

I look to have four parts. The beginning establishes the routines you would expect in such an assembly. You then set the scene of your assembly with a hook, that is to say that you establish the great necessity for them to listen to what you are about to say.

Then your main section should be a message pertinent to the place, the age and the time. Finally, leave the students with a challenge which reflects your own values. This challenge may include aspiration or a focus on qualities such as grit and determination. This is a great example to show who you are and what you will bring.

Formal interviews

At this point the interviewers will be looking to see whether you are capable of strategic thinking. They will also be looking to understand who you are, what you value and most importantly whether you are being genuine in the answers you are giving.

First of all you must consider your strategic planning. With any intervention or action consider the following as a process:

  1. Plan.
  2. Implement.
  3. Monitor.
  4. Review.

Whether it is enhancing the performance of a department or reinvigorating the PSHE curriculum, you won’t go far wrong with this structure. Along with this strategic approach you must also be clear about the method you will employ to structure your answers relating to your experience.

When answering questions that ask you to describe your experiences, you can use the following acronym to frame your answers:

  • S: Situation, what was happening, where were you, when was this?
  • T: Task, what were you asked to do, why were you asked to do this?
  • A: Action, what did you do and how?
  • R: Result, what was the impact of your actions and how did you know whether this was successful?

Any questions for us?

This is a great opportunity for you to finish with a bang. Questions I like to ask look to search for the person the panel are seeking to employ. From their answer you can then give a final pitch as to why you are the right person for this role. You can be clear, concise, confident, determined and leaving them in no doubt that you will improve this school.

And in the end...

As you leave, smile and shake hands. Remember that on any given day there are a great degree of variables. As I have said before, I hold fast to the Wigan adage of “What’s for you doesn’t go by you.”
You may not be the right person for the school and they may know this before you do. You can only be yourself and do your best. Whether you are successful or not, I would always ask for feedback so you can learn from the experience.

Any further questions please feel free to contact me.

  • 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, including the first two articles in this series via


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