Searching for the right school is much like searching for a partner online – we tentatively enter what we’re looking for and scroll through the results, rejecting those that are too far away or a have a dodgy profile. Once we think we’ve found a potential match, we make contact, trying our best to appear educated and interesting with a GSOH.
And just like in dating, sometimes, in our eagerness to make a good impression, we forget that this is also our opportunity to assess whether this is the right match for us. When it comes to choosing a school, how can you be sure you’re making the right decision?
1. Know what you want
Knowing what you want will make it much easier to identify a school you’ll be happy in. Think about whether you work better in a large school or a smaller one, rural or urban. Do you want a school with a particular focus such as the arts, science or sports? Do you lean towards a more traditional approach to education, or are you happier in a progressive environment? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions – each setting will have its advantages and disadvantages. Decide on what’s important to you and what you’d be willing to compromise on.
2. The ofsted grade isn’t everything
As I’m sure you know by now, a school’s Ofsted judgement is just one piece of the puzzle so don’t get too hung up on it. A school that’s Outstanding isn’t automatically a happy or easy place to work at, while a Requires Improvement school can be perfectly lovely but may have had a couple of years of poor data. It’s also worth bearing in mind that at present, a school graded Outstanding may not have had an Ofsted inspection in almost a decade. When you’re applying for a middle leader role, it’s ultimately the management team that will have the most influence over what the school will be like as a place to work. Which is why you need to…
3. Meet the headteacher
A headteacher can make or break a school. It isn’t always possible to meet the headteacher before the interview, but if you get the chance do so, take it. Listen carefully to what they have to say and then ask yourself, ‘Can I imagine myself working for this person? Is their vision one I could see myself sharing? Do I like them as a person? Are they welcoming and approachable?’ You’ll never find a headteacher whose every decision you agree with, but your day-to-day working life will be vastly improved by working for a headteacher you like and respect.
You can be the most effective middle leader in the country, but if you’re unable to buy into the headteacher’s vision – or if your own beliefs about education are completely at odds with the ethos of the school – then it’s harder to have an impact. Obviously, some level of compromise is necessary in any professional working environment, so pick your battles. I’ve yet to work for a headteacher whose every decision I agreed with, and it’s unlikely that I ever will. But as long as you agree with the headteacher’s vision and overall approach (that you basically agree with what they want to do and how they want to do it), the rest will come out in the wash.
4. Read the policies
As a middle leader, you’re expected to set an example, follow policies and model best practice – all of which is much easier to do if you agree with those policies in the first instance. If you can’t see yourself giving detentions to pupils for talking in the corridor, or conversely, if you don’t believe in ‘restorative justice’ approaches, don’t work in a school that pursues those strategies.
In the past, you might have had to wait until the interview, or even starting at a school before finding out what its policies actually are. However, since 2014 it’s been a statutory requirement for schools to publish certain forms of information on their websites, including Ofsted reports, recent data, core policies and so forth. As a teaching professional you might not necessarily have the time to read through it all, but a quick skim of the relevant behaviour, monitoring and marking policies should give you a good idea of what the school is like. Ultimately, what you’re trying to establish is what your day-to-day working life will be like as a middle leader. A school’s policies information should shed some light on the following:
How often does monitoring takes place at the school and what does it entail? Are these informal observations made via learning walks throughout the year? Or are they weekly ‘book looks’ and formal observations conducted at six-week intervals? Is teachers’ planning monitored? As a middle leader you’re likely to be involved with the school’s monitoring quite closely, so it will have an impact on your workload.
Is the school’s behaviour policy agreed, managed and enforced centrally in its entirety, or are elements of it left to individual teachers and phase leaders to administer for themselves?
Marking and planning expectations
It’s worth remembering that school policies get updated every few years, so check the date or timestamp of the school’s publicly available policy information if you can – if a policy is more than three or four years old, that could mean it’s due to be updated and renewed soon. Of course, that might also mean there’ll be an opportunity to revise existing policy and shape what it looks like in future.
This list is by no means a step-by-step guide to finding the perfect school. You won’t know for sure if a school is right for you until you start working there, but hopefully with the above pointers in mind you’ll at least be able to start narrowing down your search. Happy hunting!
A quick recap
- Have an idea of what sort of school/role you’re looking for before you begin your search – this will help you narrow it down.
- Build up a picture using information about the school t hat’s available online, such as its data and latest Ofsted report, but keep an open mind – this isn’t the whole story, but rather a snapshot. A visit will give you a better feel for the place.
- As a middle leader, it’s particularly important you’re on the same page as the leadership team. Ask about their plans for the school and decide whether you share similar ideas and values. This is also your chance to sound out what their vision for your role would be.
- Stay positive and don’t give up. Finding the right school can be exhausting, but it’s worth taking the time to do – you just have to keep going!
Zoë Paramour is a middle leader in a North London primary school, as well as a freelance writer and journalist specialising in education and politics; her book, How to be an Outstanding Primary Middle Leader, is available now, published by Bloomsbury.