If you were one of those who have worked assiduously to submit an application through the wave 13 free school round, you will no doubt be thinking about what can make you stand out from the competition when the Department for Education interviews start in early 2019.
Whilst your experience will be personalised to your application and situation, there are some common factors across all interviews. Whether you’ve been through this process before or are preparing for the first time, this 10-point checklist will help you prepare to showcase your vision with passion and your plans with precision.
- Have you got the right people with you?
The interviewing panel will include at least one person with a finance background and one from an education background. There will also be a DfE Lead Assessor and their DfE colleague who will chair the interview.Whilst the DfE’s stated requirements for the interview team change each wave,you should prepare a team including: the chair (or designated chair) of your trustees, the principal designate (if you have one) or other education lead named in the bid, the finance lead named in the bid and at least one other colleague. Typically, the DfE allows up to five attendees.
- How will you work together in the room?
Teams who work together brilliantly in school scan appear discordant in the interview room if they haven’t agreed their approach. You need to make sure that no one talks over, contradicts or needlessly reiterates something which has already been said. If you haven’t been in a similar situation before, we suggest nominating a chair who can designate team members to answer particular questions in line with their expertise. If you are veterans of this process, you’ll want to refresh your technique.
- What’s your elevator pitch for your school?
Interviews tend to open with a broad question about why you have decided to make this application. Make sure you have a concise, structured and exciting answer to the question: why this school, in this place, at this time?
- Do you know the strengths of your application?
Every person on the panel will have a copy of your application. Something that teams can find disconcerting is that assessors will rarely probe too deeply into areas of the application which they believe to be strong, instead focusing on gaps or perceived weaknesses. If you are asked about something that you believe is covered by a strong section, you should feel confident to reference it and build your answer from there without repetition.
- Do you know the weaknesses of your application?
Think honestly, and from the DfE’s perspective, about the areas of your application which might be perceived as weaker. Are you setting up in a new geographical area? Will the new school have a very different pupil cohort from your existing schools? Does your team currently have an important skills gap? None of these are insurmountable problems if you answer the question confidently, honestly and with solutions in mind.
- Do you know the details of your application?
You’ll need to revise the detail of your application in two areas in particular. First,you’ll need to know any demographic or other data you’ve used to prove the case for your school, and be able to summarise this clearly. Second, you’ll need to learn the detail of your finances, including the assumptions and benchmarking behind your figures. One area on which teams are often less clear is exactly what is included in their central services grant (or top slice) and what is paid for by schools. Make sure you can answer this question accurately and in line with your financial plans.
- Have you taken every opportunity to showcase your vision?
It’s crucial that you answer the questions asked, not the questions you wish you’d been asked. However, you should also take every opportunity to emphasise the strengths of your application. Make sure that you’re selling every aspect of what you’re trying to do. Lots of answers will be structured: here’s what we currently do, here’s how that will work in the new school, here’s a concrete example or piece of evidence.
- Have you prepared your key answers?
Your answers should be to the point, evidenced and tailored to the question. As implied above, structure is everything. Once you’ve assessed the questions you think you might be asked, you should prepare some structured sample answers. It’s easier to edit something you’ve already thought about than it is to come up with something under pressure. This will also help you to avoid waffling or missing something important.
- What have you been doing since submitting your application?
Make sure you use this time to talk about what anything you’ve done during the period between submission and interview. If you haven’t got round to this yet, now is the time to start building local relationships, or updating your governance structures,or confirming strategic plans. Your progress may not relate directly to the new school, but it will strengthen your application to show that you’re engaged in continuous improvement.
- What if you’re thrown a curveball?
Some interviews involve tricky questions about changes to your plans. What is your answer if you’re asked whether you would consider adding a nursery or sixth form, opening in an adjoining borough, or changing your opening year? All of these are real scenarios which have been encountered by our clients. Most often the question is around how flexible you are on your site. You should know your own red lines and how flexible you’re prepared to be to get the school approved.
As with any interview,you can’t be too prepared. We are firm believers that practice makes perfect,so make sure that you have time to run through the process with your whole team and to consider the above.
Premier Advisory Group is offering a mock interview service to any team with an application submitted to wave 13 or any other competition for a new school. We have significant experience on both sides of the interview table and bring all our knowledge and experience to every mock interview we give. If we can help you prepare for the next phase in your new school journey, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.