Stepping up to the SLT: Part 1

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
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In this three-part series, school leader Phil Denton looks at making the step up to a senior leadership post. He will describe a three-step process, which begins with finding the right post for you...

Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be a senior leader in three schools in three different roles. I have been an assistant head, deputy head and head of school.

In order to secure these positions I have followed a three-step process which has allowed me to find the right school for me at the right time. It has not been straightforward and this path towards securing the position I desired has been fraught with disappointment, contradictory advice and that sense of unease one lives with when looking to move forward while still being effective in your existing role.

A successful three-step process for me is as follows:

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

These three articles will invite you to reflect on the philosophical reasons behind career advancement as well as detailing the practical skills you will need to employ in order to be successful.

I cannot guarantee success, but if you are looking to secure a position that is right for you – one in which you will experience personal and professional satisfaction – then this process is aimed at supporting you to make the right decisions.

I have seen many friends and colleagues who have moved into roles in school and in other walks of life where they have not found that real sense of place or purpose. We can often think that career advancement will automatically result in greater workplace self-efficacy and self-esteem. However, I am sure that each one of you can relate to a personal experience or have seen examples of this simply not being the case. So let us begin by thinking clearly about what we are looking for – and that means searching with the soul.

Who do you think you are?

When you look for that first senior leadership post there is one key characteristic you need to establish: authenticity. The dictionary definition explains this vital but ethereal concept as: “Being of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”

Students can pick it out a mile away, whether they are 8 or 18. We feel it from our friends, families and colleagues in a way that can be difficult to verbalise. If we are authentic, genuine and original in ourselves then this will come across clearly in the entire application process.

There are great trappings to any senior leadership role that include elevated status, improved money and greater influence. However, such attractions can be millstones if we are not authentic with ourselves and our prospective employers.

I have called this step “searching with the soul” (it is cheesy I know so call it what you will) because when you look for a role in a school you need to be clear that both the role and the school are good matches for you.

To start the process of reflection, I ask myself the following questions and then discuss these and my responses with someone from whom I always get an honest response – even if I often don’t agree: my wife.

Key questions

  • What is your vision for a great school? Try explaining this in just one or two sentences. Then circle the key words. Consider the ethos, the mission, the demographic, the potential and location.
  • Which part of developing that great school would most excite you?
  • How do you want to contribute to this great school? Consider where your strengths are, but also what areas you would like to develop in order to have the maximum impact.

Either write all of this down or discuss it with a critical friend (or spouse)! You may well find yourself being able to articulate the type of school, the role and the area you would like to focus on. You need to be clear on this if you want to look for your next step with a clarity of thought in terms of who you are and where you want to be. You need to be authentic.

Deciphering the glitter from the gold

When you have given your authenticity enough thought (and it should have given you a headache...) start to have a look at the jobs out there. First define your range in terms of travel. It sounds so simple but commutes can have a real impact on your life and the lives of your family. Ensure this is sensible and gives you enough time to have a balanced life.

Then start to search the glossy, enticing text of the leadership job adverts. You may also find guidance from recruitment agencies who will work on behalf of schools. However, I have always found TES jobs to be the best avenue for roles as well local authority websites, multi-academy trust sites and archdiocesan sites (Catholic sector). The government has also said it will be piloting a new free jobs website for schools, so we’ll see if this develops (SecEd, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2M5fv6U).

You should have the notes or thoughts from the responses to your key questions in mind. I would suggest your order of priority should be the right school, then the right role, and then the right focus area.

For example, I took an assistant head post on that was in absolutely the right school, with the right role, and was covering a professional area where I felt I needed (and wanted) to develop.

There were many other roles that I could have applied for. Many promised quick promotion and additional advancement. The glitter of posts that promise the world can often been a distraction from a school masking a more realistic reflection. However, I saw the “gold” of this job through online searching, speaking to friends who knew the school – and the all-important walk-around.

Walking the walk

Going back the point of being authentic, you should absolutely walk around the school you are applying for prior to application. You will then be able to reference what you see in your cover letter, but more importantly you will get a sense for the school.

Again, authenticity is key here, you don’t need to be a comedian but you should try to be confident in yourself.

It is a little bit like a first date – try too hard and you may look desperate, but similarly make too little of an effort and you may also make a bad first impression.

Be in no doubt though, when application forms are being sifted through, your walk around can often be as important as the 1,300 words in font size 11 that the shortlisting panel will read through. I have often heard someone say: “Oh yes, they came on walk-around and I thought...”

When walking around, show an interest in the school and subtly make it clear you know a bit about the school. Ask the questions to get the information that you can use in your cover letter. Think about your answers to those three key questions and how closely aligned the school is to those ideals.

I always believe that for a senior post the headteacher should be showing you around, or at the very least they should be giving you some time unless there is a good reason that they cannot – so be ready for this encounter. If you are moving from middle leadership to senior leadership then you are becoming a member of a team that shapes the entire school community. Therefore, talk broadly about the performance across the school and be sure to reference school-wide work you have done as well as any successes in your middle leadership role.

The next step, once you’ve found a school that meets the authentic you, is to apply. I’ll outline my successful experiences in the next article.

  • Phil Denton is head of school (headteacher designate from September) at St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk. You can email him at p.denton@sbchs.co.uk. You can read his previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2szXIgl. His next article in this series will publish on June 21.


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