Free School Interviews: 10 Things We’ve Learnt

PAG Staff Schools

PAG offers mock free school interviews to groups who have submitted applications to open new schools, either via the central route or any local authority presumption competitions. We have recently undertaken several mock interviews with clients who have submitted applications through Wave 2, Wave 14 and local authority competitions and have summarised some invaluable insights that have arisen from these below.

1.      Know your bid

It may have been quite a while since your bid was written, and though it sounds obvious, you’ll want to avoid being tripped up by details of the bid that are easily cross-checked. Not every person in your team needs to know the bid inside-out, but each person should do some revision of their section of expertise before the interview.

2.      Chairing is caring

Electing a member of your team to chair the interview can give it real structure and can mitigate the risk of the same person answering every question. It is also a great opportunity to buy time to think if you’re thrown a tricky question, while your chair introduces you and why you’re best-equipped to answer the question.

3.      Promote your USP

Depending on your local authority and knowledge of the area, you may or may not have an idea of who you’re up against. Your USP could help put you above competing trusts. Every member of your team should know what makes you stand out from your competitors and should use this to their advantage to support what is written in your bid.  

4.      Expect the unexpected

Even if you bring to the table a thorough bid and a comprehensive project plan, any project is likely to run into problems. You may be asked questions about how you will deal with unexpected hurdles and should consider as a team the strategies you will use to overcome these, perhaps drawing on previous experiences to strengthen your response. As well as unforeseen events during pre-opening, our clients’ previous experiences at interview have shown that the interview itself can be full of surprises, such as larger-than-anticipated interview panels, mid-interview person changes and curveball questions. Be prepared!

5.      Polish your elevator pitch

Some interviewers will ask you to present your vision for your new school as an elevator pitch. This is your 60-second chance to sell your new school. Many trusts have so much enthusiasm to share the strengths and the advantages their new school will bring to the community that it is difficult to condense this into such a short space of time. Ensure you practise and polish your pitch so that you are ready to give a concise but compelling answer to the questions: ‘Why this school? Why here? Why now?’

6.      Vision for the future

Whilst it is incredibly important to be able to speak about your current achievements, many trusts find it difficult to find the balance between celebrating the successes of their current schools and embedding their vision for their new school in their free school interviews. Your interviewer will want to gain an idea of how the new school will provide outstanding opportunities and outcomes for your pupils, so try to convey this while strengthening your vision with tangible examples from your existing provision.

7.      Community spirit

If you are a trust with a strong track record applying to open a new school in your area, you will want to show off your knowledge of, and engagement with, the community in which your trust is based. If you are opening your school in a different local authority or area however, community engagement may be ongoing. It is okay to talk about engaging the new community as a role for your headteacher designate, alongside your ongoing strategy.

8.      Common vocabulary

Most interviewees are able to talk passionately about their trusts but remember that language consistency between your team is key. You should be singing from the same songbook about a collective vision and repetition of key vocabulary can be a valuable tool to imprint your values and ethos on your interviewer’s memory. As well as this, acronyms and terms can vary from school to school and trust to trust, so make sure that you are clear on definitions.

9.      Stay on track

While you are probably bursting to show-off your capacity, capability and credentials, it can be easy to deviate from the question being asked as you try to dazzle the interviewer with your vision for the new school. Though it sounds simple, sticking closely to the question will show that you know exactly what you’re talking about and you will still have some showstopping answers reserved for later questions. 

10.  Lay the foundations

A strong relationship with your local authority and the DfE could be invaluable in getting your application approved and could be advantageous if any problems arise, such as delays to housing developments. You should be aiming to build and maintain these relationships at all times, prior to submitting your application and attending your interview. However, if the local authority is already set on the type of school it is looking for, don’t be disheartened if the interview does not go in your favour. They may be looking for something different the next time around.

Thinking of seeking support with your free school interview?

PAG has significant experience on both sides of the interview table and we bring all our knowledge and experience to every mock interview we give. We put clients through a process which mirrors DfE or local authority free school interviews as much as possible. To follow on from the mock interview, PAG conducts a review of the application and develops questions that will be asked in a face to face session with the team with feedback and coaching given. To find out more about how we can support you with the interview process, please click here.

The DfE has not yet announced when its next application wave will open, but updates will be posted on the DfE website when available.