Preparing for SBM Interviews | Edexec


As many of my peers hang up their SBM superhero cloaks for the last time, and head into the sunset in search of a blissful retirement, there is a whole generation of new and enthusiastic practitioners waiting in the wings to take up the school business challenges across the sector – and good luck to you all!

Over the last few months I’ve noticed several appeals for advice on social media – people looking to prepare for that all important SBM interview and in search of some pearls of wisdom. I am certainly not professing to be that wise person but, having been involved in lots of recent SBM recruitment panels, I thought I’d share one or two hints and tips about how you might best prepare. Sitting on the other side of the table gives a different perspective – and it makes the process much easier when the interviewee has done their homework.

I’d suggest you split your pre interview prep into 2 categories: –

  • Firstly, undertake thorough research into the school/trust/federation you are applying to. Make sure you know as much as possible about its past and present and its future aspirations. Understand its ethos and vision and, wherever you can, try and arrange a pre-interview visit to get a feel for the place to ascertain whether you would be a good fit for them and vice versa.
  • Secondly, you need to set out a plan for how you will perform on the day including prepping for interview questions, dealing with an in-tray exercise and the possibility of preparing a for a presentation – sometimes at short notice.

Let’s go through these elements in a little more detail.

Research

Knowledge is power – try and dedicate as much time as you can to research the organisation, so that you know as much as possible about it. Check out things such as the last OfSTED report, the school website, social media, financial records/documents, and find out about the structure of the governing body/trust board – who are the governors/trustees?

If the role you have applied for is a generalist SBM role, the scope of your research could be huge. If you are being interviewed for a more specialist role there could be targeted areas of research that are more relevant – for example around finance or HR.

Either way, having an overall knowledge of the strategic make-up and direction of the school or trust will be incredibly useful at an interview.

Ofsted – be mindful of the date of the last inspection but, regardless, this will give you a good overview of the setting, the challenges that the school has faced/is facing, and any recommendations for changes/improvements.

Website – will give you information about staffing, the school’s vision and ethos, and also insights into where the school sits within its local community. You should also be able to find additional information from the website about the governors/trustees and other useful information – for example, pupil premium reports. Social media is also a mine of useful information – about the school and also about key members of staff.

Financial records/documents – for academics financial statements are published (see Companies House) and are a matter of public record. For most schools you can access financial information through the schools’ benchmarking website. The www.gov.uk webpages contain a ‘mothership’ of financial data about schools – it’s just knowing where to find it and being patient as you search for specific information – eg funding allocations.

I’d also use the school’s financial efficiency metric which provides a list of every school’s statistical ‘neighbors’; using this you will be able to fine tune comparative data. Unpicking the financial data can help you to understand some of the key drivers within the organization and where areas of expenditure are in or out of line with similar schools. There are generic financial challenges faced by all schools, not least managing very tight budgets, significant increases in energy costs, escalation of staffing costs etc – you know what this list looks like – but examining financial statements can reveal specific financial issues that could compound the financial challenges a school faces.

Other useful documents to seek out and study include the School Resource Management Self-Assessment Toolkit and information about their integrated curriculum financial planning. Depending on the type of school you are applying to, and your existing base of experience, I’d also be reading and digesting either the Schools Financial Value Standard and/or the Academics Trust Handbook.

Pre-interview school visit – some schools encourage these, whilst others don’t. Personally, I feel it presents an ideal opportunity to test your gut instincts and see if the stated vision and ethos of the school translates into a good ‘feel’. It’s best to have done your research beforehand, and a good idea to prep for this too. Remember to be in active listening mode – make notes, consider what you want to find out from this visit, what questions you want to ask – and, at the same time, be thinking about whether or not you feel you could fit in and work here. Be aware that this is an opportunity for the school to check you out – so be mindful of the impression you create.

Prepping for the actual interview

Be prepared for the day to consist of a range of different activities which might include various interview panels (a mix of informal and formal with key staff, and students), a desktop/in-tray exercise or other activity, and probably a presentation.

As part of your preparation re-familiarise yourself with the information you provided in your application; This is the basis of the knowledge that the interviewers have about you and there will be questions probing this. It’s also a good idea to refresh your memory about the scope of the job description and the person specification.

Informal panels – it’s hard to prep for these scenarios, and bear in mind there’s likely to be an observer present to check out your performance. From personal experience the most daunting ones are the student panels! Students tend to be given a brief but there is always the potential for at least one of them to go ‘off piste’. I was once put on the spot and asked if I knew any good jokes – have a suitable one up your sleeve, just in case! Other informal panels will probably involve staff you are likely to work closely with, and they’ll be checking you out. Think about the impression you want to give them, and how you would lead a discussion if asked to do so.

Desktop/in-tray exercises – desktop exercises usually focus on the analysis of financial data; if you’ve done some thorough research beforehand this will stand you in good stead here. In-trays tend to be about prioritisation and problem-solving so use your common sense and think about the most important things – for example, the safety of students and staff. Don’t forget to explain why when you have given a specific response.

Presentations – I wrote a recent article about ‘presenting with confidence’ so you might want to revisit this. The overriding piece of advice is to practice, practice, practice. Be prepared to be the last person to deliver a presentation on the same topic – how will you handle this and make it interesting for an audience who might be bored senseless by this time! This is a really difficult one – but be yourself and try to park your nerves and let your own personality shine through. Factor in the potential for technology to fail you – have a contingency plan.

Formal interview – fundamentally, this is the point where they find out more about you and whether or not you could do the job and fit well within the team. The questions are likely to be about your:-

  • Existing skills and competencies.
  • past experiences.
  • Capacity to do this specific job.
  • Ability to problem-solve/react to given situations.
  • Strengths and weaknesses.
  • Career aspirations – including CPD needs.

Use the internet to look at likely questions that might be posed – there are 100s that are SBM-relevant and also some that test out soft skills too. Think about the scenarios/experiences that demonstrate your skills and strengths, and remember to talk about the impact of your actions. If you can link this, directly or indirectly, to the education/attainment of students, even better. Be prepared to talk about how you’d do something differently next time, and what you learned through this experience. You will probably be asked if you have any questions for them – be prepared for this and have four or five to hand.

Finally, be prepared for a random question (‘rogue panel members’ can have their pet questions they always ask ☹) such as ‘What is the best book you’ve ever read and why?’ ‘Who has had the most influence on you in your life and why?’ There are others; try not to be taken too much off guard.

Summary

Aside from all of the above I’d recommend trying to get a good night’s sleep beforehand – I had an awful experience long ago when my daughter was ill and kept me awake most the night before my interview. I galvanised myself to go, even though my head felt like it was full of cotton wool and tried my best, but my brain just wasn’t functioning properly and I didn’t get the job – I was gutted but it couldn’t be Help – so never underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep before the interview!

Remember to try and dress to impress, to act confidently even though you’ll be nervous, and to make eye contact as much as possible. Nerves are to be expected – most interviewers will be aware of this, and do everything they can put you at ease. If you suffer a lot from nerves you will need your own strategies to help you keep these under control; I’d be inclined to explain this briefly to the panel at the start of the session – after all, honesty and humility are great personal characteristics in an SBM role!

I’m sure there is a huge amount I’ve missed out but I sincerely hope this information proves useful, and wish you luck with your upcoming interviews.

Val Andrew

  • Program Manager for Best Practice Network DSBM Level 4 – find out more: https://www.bestpracticenet.co.uk/dsbm-l4
  • Patron of ISBL.
  • Formerly ASCL School Business Leadership Specialist (2010 – 2018).
  • Recipient of ISBL CEO Award for exceptional contributions to school business leadership in 2018.
  • Semi – retired SBL and very proud grandma.
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