Friday, June 17, 2011

How not to apply for your own job

ParentsPstcrd_120309.jpg by Carolyn_Sewell - used under a Creative Commons license.
A previous post looked forward (if that's the appropriate phrase) to the end of the process of applying for my own role in the Buckinghamshire School Improvement Service, and was written the evening before my half-hour interview. So what happened?
Well, the outcome was that I didn't get the post I applied for (School Improvement Adviser) but was instead offered a post of School Improvement Consultant with salary protection for three years. This is definitely a mixed blessing - of course, I'm incredibly fortunate to have a job at all in the current climate, but to say I was disappointed would be an understatement and, according to the postcard above, a way of wimping out. I'm angry with myself for not having done a better job, and in some ways angry at... what? A system that doesn't recognise work that it can't categorise? My employer for not realising how obviously great I was/am? Hmm, probably neither of those two, so it's probably just myself - and the second one wasn't meant seriously by the way...
That said, I know there are many, many other people facing similar situations right now or in the near future, so I hope this post might be helpful to someone. I've always been a fan of schools and individuals sharing practice - not just "good practice" but also "bad practice" - the "don't do what I did" sort of practice, so if you're facing a similar situation, whether in a school, Local Authority or any other organisation then I hope there's something you can glean from this.

I'm aware that this isn't a perfectly rounded or objective post, so if I have anything not-quite-right then please be patient!

The context

I've been in post for six years now (really?) - I was originally appointed with a brief of making a web site for the School Improvement Service but rapidly moved into supporting & advising schools with the practical aspects of E-Learning - specifically through the use of Moodle and Adobe Connect. (Sometimes when I'm speaking about this work I revert to the "we decided to do this" form of language. Actually, much of it was just me at first.) This was before Becta started the Learning Platforms Framework and before 98% of schools knew what a VLE, Learning Platform or accessible videoconferencing tool was. I was not an adviser, but not a consultant either, but was appointed on an adviser's pay scale, so I guess if you had to call it, you'd say I was an adviser. I remember my two-part interview vividly - the first part was three headteachers and the Head of Service (who'd previously moved from Hertfordshire and asked me to apply for a role in Bucks) and the second part was four senior advisers. I was appointed outside of the curriculum ICT team and was line managed by one of the senior advisers - which meant I very much had a "School Improvement" focus rather than an "ICT" focus. Having someone with a self-professed lack of understanding and experience of technology to support learning and school improvement as a line manager, I started to use this blog as preparation for line management and appraisal meetings - which helped me focus on writing things that could be read by anyone, even if they weren't familiar with the environment and issues my work focused on.  Around 2008 the position of my role changed abruptly - without warning I became part of the curriculum ICT team and was line managed by the county adviser, which changed the game (!) significantly. My post went from being core funded by the Local Authority to being paid for from the Harnessing Technology grant - which didn't seem significant at the time. At the same time the focus of the ICT team became less on curriculum ICT and more on e-learning-like activities, since that's where the funding was. Of course, with the seismic changes to funding for all kinds of school improvement-type work, plus swingeing cuts to Local Authority budgets, and the decimation of the Harnessing Technology budget in line with the Coalition government choosing to give that funding to Free Schools, those chickens came home to roost in a "you are all at risk of redundancy" meeting just before Christmas. Hence the recruitment process...

Being interviewed for your own post

I won't go over everything that happened, but on reflecting on what I did right and wrong I can pull out what for me are some important points for anyone having to interview either for their own role, or a similar role in an organisation that's being restructured, but essentially remaining similar to how it was before. These are particularly relevant if your skills and experience are in areas which are seen as "non-traditional" to whatever it is that your organisation does.
  • Be aware that few people will know the detail of what you do - before the interview processes started I sat down with a senior manager within the Service to go over what the process would entail. He explained that the interviews would be short - 30 minutes - since "we already know you and what you do". Well, on reflection I guess that wasn't true. I assumed that they knew the large-scale, planning, delivery and advisory work that I've done within Bucks and beyond, and therefore chose a small, school-based project to present on to provide a balance to that. It turns out that, for whatever reason, the single school-based project gave a picture of working in small, individual projects and not setting policy, or guidance, or anything more significant - hence (I was told afterwards) the offer of a Consultant post rather than that of an Adviser. This may be peculiar to me (and you) - I'm often told I don't talk about what I've done in glowing enough terms - but on reflection my advice would be: don't assume knowledge of anything you've ever done, even if you've made the papers for years, been asked to write for the same paper, been on the news, won awards, whatever - it'll count for nothing when some harrassed people are having to interview their entire workforce because they've been told they have to make yet more significant cuts/savings.
  • Those who appreciate what you do (and the way in which it reflects well on your organisation) won't be consulted about how good or otherwise you are at your role - this is stating the obvious, but in the education context, unless your work is almost exclusively with headteachers, those who see the best of your work won't communicate this with anyone who'll be involved in evaluating you. You're almost certainly working in a different strata (heads of departments, senior leaders other than the head, class teachers, governors) and even something that's significant on a whole-school or LA level might not seem that significant unless a headteacher cites it. I'm not sure if giving them as references would help - our recruitment process involved interviewing over a hundred people in less than two weeks - another reason (to my mind) for the shorter than usual interviews. I'm currently working on a project using out Adobe Connect service to, er, connect two primary schools to work on The Big Write together. The deputies from both schools are involved and have been incredibly positive and encouraging in their responses to the work I'm doing, but I know that, unless I were to ask them to, this response won't get back to my line manager(s) and Those Who Matter in the School Improvement Service. That's not a complaint, that's just The Way Things Are.
  • Beware being a prophet without honour - this sometimes archaic phrase comes from the Bible and, as the page puts it, refers to having more respect among those who don't know you as well as those who are around you all the time. One of my bordering-on-bitter reflections at the end of the process was that my own Local Authority didn't want be to be an adviser, but there were plenty of other people beyond the County boundaries who did. Now that's not completely accurate, but in some ways how you feel about being in your job equates with how it actually is, as it's the feelings that are overwhelming. Being wanted beyond your own boundaries is always flattering, but carries little or no weight with those who currently employ you - unless it earns your Authority a significant amount of funds in consultancy fees.
  • Emphasise the breadth of what you can do, rather than how much you know about a particular area - particularly if the area you're involved in falls outside of what the current Government's definition of "things which will improve schools" is - or the area that (it turns out) your employer is going to focus on.

Final reflections

On reflection, it's clear that among all of the upheavals of budgets, and the killing changing of the relationship between Local Authorities and schools, that what the LA wants to focus on is a traditional "School Improvement" role, in which those at adviser level are a hybrid of link adviser (who advises the schools on a broad area of school improvement issues) and subject/area adviser, with consultants who could deputise and effectively shadow the adviser. This rules out there being much of a space for those who perform roles that  fall outside of those core services LAs are being made to pare down to. With that in mind, I guess it was a stone-cold certainty that I wouldn't have ended up as an adviser. Even as I write that, I'm aware that it's an attempted "get oneself off the hook" manoeuvre to make up for my poor performance, but it's all I've got...

What next?

The restructuring of the School Improvement Service in Bucks means I'll no longer be part of an ICT team, instead I'll be part of one of three teams focusing on supporting schools in different areas of the County and different elements of the education system (Pupils, Schools and County-wide issues). I'm not sure about how this will work out, but we'll see. In the meantime, I've lots to do with both Moodle (looking at when we upgrade to version 2.n) and our Adobe Connect service (the use of which is really taking off, particularly among primary schools in the County). I hope I'll be able to explore those areas in which we've innovated, and done something that in many ways has been a lead at a national level (and reasonably well-known beyond UK shores) and continue to do interesting things and have equally interesting ideas for as long as I'm wanted, as I hope I've a lot to offer anyone who'll have me. Whether that's possible will depend on all sorts of things, many beyond the control of those in my LA.

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