Discovery Education Pathway: Leadership Recruitment – In The Eye Of The Beholder

Experienced school leader and recruitment consultant, Mike Abraham, shares his experience of the selection process for school leadership and describes the course he has authored for the Pathway Programme from Discovery Education and NAHT, launching in September.

If I had a pound for every time that a candidate was completely flummoxed when asked at a Headship interview, ‘Are leaders born or created?’, I would be a rich man! It is such an obvious question to ask: Governors simply want to know the approach the candidate would take to lead and inspire a school community, and where they think they gained their skills. And yet it takes many candidates completely by surprise. Welcome to the mysterious world of leadership recruitment and the often exhausting and certainly demanding selection process.

Leadership interviews are fascinating to observe. On the one side of the table, you have the school governors, usually supported by a specialist advisor or an educational consultant who has been provided by the recruitment agency. Governors come from every walk of life and each of them will have widely different experiences of what good leadership looks like. They will hopefully have empathy for the complexity of headship in the unique setting of their school, but very few will have sat in that particular hot seat.

And then, on the other side of the table, there are the aspiring school leaders, often a deputy who is seeking a first headship. They will be totally immersed in the forensic operation of their school but will have, in reality, little appreciation of what it takes to be a successful head. It is not a small step from deputy head to headship, it is more of a chasm. So many of the candidates have been promoted to their positions by being very skillful practitioners, good teachers. They may have acquired management skills on the job but they have had little time or opportunity to explore leadership, either in an educational setting or as an academic exercise.

From my experience, each school is unique, with its own particular challenges. Each one will be at a very different stage in the cycle of school improvement and therefore, for any leadership candidate, a real appreciation of this context is vital. Strangely, it is that appreciation that is so very difficult to convey during an interview process and yet, perversely, it is precisely that which is being sought from the candidates by the Governors. Square that circle!

Before joining the ranks of headhunters and recruiters, I served as a head in five very different schools over 25 years, from 1985 to 2010. Yes, the gamekeeper literally did become a poacher. Each school that I was part of was very distinct, as I suppose are all schools, and I always did my best to identify the idiosyncrasies, the original characteristics of that school and to build on it, to develop what was there and to add value. Above all, I aimed to be a polisher and shiner of teachers, to be a school leader who walked the corridors, enthusing about the daily opportunities and filling the school with optimism. Looking back, I was probably very annoying!

For the last nine years, I have worked in school leadership recruitment. I learnt my trade from Duncan Verry, Aaron Ashton and Michael Watson of TES Prime and I have sought to emulate their outstanding consultancy approach to executive search and recruitment. Over the last few years, I have supported over 80 leadership processes, assisting groups such as Oasis, Cognita, Witherslack and the Independent Schools Partnership, as well as both state and independent senior and junior schools. Each recruitment process is different, with good bits, bad bits, omissions, mistakes, air-punch moments, dismay, hysteria and laughter, and that’s only from me!   The greatest lessons I have learned are a) listen very carefully to the requirements and opinions of the Governors and b) listen very carefully to the candidates. Don’t miss a word.

As a course leader on the NAHT & Discovery Education Pathway Programme, my course is specifically designed to help middle and senior leaders understand the whole process of leadership recruitment. It brings together leadership and management ideas from industry and education and provides a refreshingly new perspective on the intricate mechanism of interviews. The course includes a discussion between successful leaders drawn from many walks of life. They will decide what they consider to be the most valuable qualities and attributes of successful leadership.

This is followed by a section which explores several identified leadership styles. It is really important that potential school leaders have a good knowledge of these generic leadership styles, and a particular understanding of their own! They must be able to provide a sincere narrative so that when the question comes, “And what sort of leader are you?” they are ready to provide a carefully balanced, sincere and truthful answer.

The whole interview process is examined from application to acceptance – a holistic review if you like. The course includes an analysis of the key criteria that Governors may be looking for in an individual and the ways in which they should assess against these criteria. The final part of the selection process is critical, a chance for the candidates to shine (or otherwise!) and this can often provide the overriding input to the selection panel.  Final interview questions are discussed, and the potential pitfalls examined. It is important for potential candidates to consider the Governors’ views of the selection process and helps them to stand in their shoes and appreciate their perspective.

If you would like further information about the Pathway programme or to register your interest please visit


Mike Abraham

Former head teacher, now Leadership Recruitment Consultant

Being an Independent School Head for 25 years provides Mike with the legitimacy to use his wide knowledge and understanding of education sector to the benefit of his clients. Working as a private educational consultant for the last nine years, Mike has supported more than 100 schools in many different ways. He has led over 80 successful senior leadership recruitment processes, undertaken marketing reviews, advised governors and heads on compliance issues, and has provided mentoring support and formal appraisals of head teachers.

He was first appointed as a head in 1985 at the Cathedral Junior School in Worcester, where he was also Housemaster to the boarding choristers. He then spent some time working in industry learning the principles of leadership and management in a very different context. Mike went on to be the Founding Headmaster at Yarm Prep School, a new venture in the North East of England, where he grew the school from zero to a thriving, profitable and well-respected 340 pupils. He has also been head of three other Prep Schools and is known for his marketing strengths and ability to turn around failing establishments.

Since 2010, Mike has worked as a consultant through heads for heads with TES Prime and RSAcademics. He has worked extensively throughout this country but also in Mexico, across Europe and in America. He is now a retired member of IAPS, a former ISI Inspector, a Governor at four very different schools and the longest serving member on the steering committee of the cross association, national independent junior school conference. He is currently involved in mentoring and appraising Heads, the recruitment of bursars, advising on inspection compliance and is a judge for the TES Independent School of the Year Awards.