An In-Tray Exercise: What Would You Do?

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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What would you do?

This is an in-tray exercise for a potential leadership interview. Now, from the outset, I will state that I am no supporter of the in-tray exercise used for school interviews; for the simple reason that they seldom, provide any feedback for the candidate.

The purpose of an in-tray exercise?

I know this is a sweeping generlisation, but any in-tray exercise that does not serve as a factor in the process is pointless! Don’t do it. From my experience of receiving and providing in-tray exercises, this, therefore, makes everyone I have ever completed, meaningless. I have found myself in situations where I have been told, ‘that the in-tray exercise is used when a final decision is hard to reach’, or ‘ to offer the panel an insight into your thinking and decision-making process.’ That’s fine, but I want feedback!

Now, this is not an argument to discount any kind of exercise used to decipher the aptitude of a potential applicant; and I do agree to some extent that the in-tray activity does serve a purpose at interview. Despite my misgivings, on my recent travels north of the border, I was lucky enough to go through an in-tray exercise twice – in the same Scottish council – and complete over 30 in-tray exercises. ‘Lucky?’ you ask; well yes. Not only was this great to troubleshoot a huge number of challenging leadership scenarios, but it was very useful to be able to discuss in detail, my thoughts after the task was complete. In a moment, I received instant feedback for the first time! It suddenly served a purpose just like a well-organised lesson (study) observation with feedback. It all made sense …

Now, before I and the reader get carried away, I am not a fully fledged convert. Far from it. But I am seeing the benefit in using these scenarios shared below as a revision tool for teachers seeking a new job. In short, any in-tray exercise is a fabrication. A tool to test the nerves and distinguish razor-sharp candidates from within the interview field. The reality of what is written below is a reproduction of artificial scenarios that you will possibly encounter. The likelihood of them all occurring at the same time is very remote and the likelihood that you will be the only person in all of these situations to troubleshoot discuss, delegate and resolve, are highly unlikely.

With this in mind, please do read on and test yourself.


It’s a typical Thursday morning and you have just sat down at your desk. It’s 7.15am and you receive the following information via email; voicemail; text message and paper.

The headteacher is off-site until 11am. You are leading staff briefing at 8.30am and lesson one starts at 9am. These tasks must be resolved by the time the headteacher returns from a council meeting at 11am. You are teaching an examination class period 1 (9am-10am) and have a scheduled meeting period 2 (10am-11am) with the Head of Geography as part of your fortnightly meeting cycle. After the morning break, you have 12 potential new parents on-site for a school tour and you are observing a lesson after lunch. As a senior teacher, you are expected to be on break duty every day, so with this in mind, you have approximately 30 minutes free between 12.45-1.20 pm before the lunch hour starts. Your day looks like this:

  • 8.30am – 8.45am: Staff Briefing
  • 9am – 10am: Teaching
  • 10am – 11am: Head of Geography meeting
  • 11am – 11.20am: Break duty (*Headteacher returns)
  • 11.20 – 12.20pm Tour of school with parents.
  • 12.20 – 1.20pm: Tour continued and possible free 30 mins around 1pm.
  • 1.20 – 2pm: Lunch
  • 2 – 3pm: Observation


Read the following scenarios and the time and format you have received them. Rank in order of preference how you would resolve each issue; detailing decisions and reasons made. You will have the opportunity to discuss your responses and explain what you would do and why. For this exercise you have 30 minutes.


Time / Day Format Scenario
Wednesday 6.30pm Voicemail on your office phone
  1. An angry parent claims her child had her money stolen in a PE lesson, she said her daughter was made to take her shoes and socks off in class, and had her bag searched. She is coming to the school at 3pm today to see you.
Tuesday 12pm Paper via Head of Year in-tray
  1. A letter from a parent wants to take her child to Poland, to attend a religious ceremony during term time. The event is in 3 school days (from date received) and length of the time away from school is for 4 days. The child will miss some of their mock exams. There are no contact details on the letter.
Thursday 7am Paper letter addressed to you.
  1. You receive a letter from the daughter of a former teacher at the school who has died. The member of staff worked at the school for 3 years and left in 2010. The funeral is next Wednesday. They have left their telephone number and hope the school will attend.
Wednesday 8am Email via local residents.
  1. Write a letter to the parents of two boys who have been involved in a fight outside the school. Both boys have been involved in similar incidents in the past. Further action will be required.
Monday 3pm Email from Head of LEA
  1. An email forwarded by the headteacher, says ‘Sort this out urgently!’ It is from the local authority asking for missing data reports for pupils in Key Stage 3. The deadline is Friday noon, before going to print.
Thursday 7.45am Text / Voicemail – directly from next of kin
  1. A telephone message from the husband of a teacher who has called in seriously sick. They have been in A&E overnight and will not be in school today. They have left you a voicemail and a text message asking for a return call ASAP.
Wednesday 11pm Email – directly from a parent.
  1. An email message is a complaint from a parent who would like to arrange a meeting with you to discuss unresolved concerns with the Spanish teacher. She wants her child to move class and the Head of Department has ignored her requests so far.
Thursday 8.55am Voicemail
  1. A telephone message from your son asking you to call home.
Thursday 7am Scrap piece of paper under your door.
  1. A note from a member of staff who is concerned about the behaviour of a pupil. All the message says is ‘Johnny. Form 8DZ. Safeguarding concern’
Tuesday 4pm Email request
  1. The headteacher has asked you to write a 500-word article to all parents, to introduce yourself as the newly appointed senior teacher in the school. It goes to print on Friday 3pm and the headteacher wants to proofread it by Thursday 5pm. They want to see your opening paragraph in an email before Thursday 12pm.

Remember, it is Thursday 7.15am.

 Download: Test yourself?

Download and print off this document. There is a second sheet to record your responses.


  1. Headteacher: What would you do? (Part 1/2)
  2. Headteacher: What would you do? (Part 2/2)


21 thoughts on “An In-Tray Exercise: What Would You Do?

    1. Would it be appropriate to say there are some tasks you would delegate or use other members of staff to help with? So for example, we have a system within our school where Heads of Year would place a ‘holding call’ to the parent in example 1 and say “we have received your voicemail and blah will return your call shortly or would be willing to meet later etc.” so that the parents knows that their concern has been acknowledged.
      Or 2. could be reassigned to the head for approval of absence and then sent on to the attendance officer?
      I am not sure if this would be seen as shirking responsibility or as successful management of workload?

  1. Can I check that I’m looking at this correctly? If it’s 7:15am on Thursday morning how can you tackle events that have yet to happen at 7:45am and 8:55am?

    1. Hi Sinead, the point is that you have to systematically work through the information and action each item in order as you *would receive the information in real time*. So, although it’s 7:15AM, technically speaking, you won’t have the 7:45AM information until that point in your morning, so as you rationalise your start of the day decisions, you have to factor in *when the 7:45AM event will occur* and *what, when and how you will deal with it*. Hope that makes sense…

    1. Please can you send me the correct ( or suggested correct answers) to this scenario?

      I have a second interview this week for a Head of Department and they have asked for 3of is to come back and do this text amongst lots of other things. I’m concerned it might be electronic such as an e tray? I’m 50 so not as good at IT!
      Any other tips gratefully received! I’m at a Private school and applying to other private schools. Worried about my age!!

  2. Does anyone have any ideas of what might be in an in-tray exercise for a Head of Faculty?
    I’ve googled unendingly and found nothing of use.

  3. I did this exact in tray activity the other week. The school literally copied this word for word and put their logo on it! As long as you put the safeguarding ones first, there is then a certain amount of common sense when deciding on the other ones (at least in the feedback session they only asked one question about the kid going to Poland and why I had put it where I did).

  4. Hello, Ross!

    I thought since safeguarding comes priority most of the time, the email about the fight would come quite high up the list. I actually put it second on my list since it was the oldest message out of three which I thought were safeguarding related issues (email about fighting came on Wednesday 8am, angry parent voicemail Wednesday 11pm, safeguarding on piece of paper on Thursday morning before 7.15am)

    Is there a reason why number 4 comes 8th down on your suggestion?

  5. Is it OK to say some of these would not realistically be achieved/dealt with by 11am. If you claim to be a super teacher then you have to live up to it and that then becomes a recipe for disaster. Yes order them (safeguarding first!) , delegate some, but don’t expect miracles.. There are only so many hours in a day.
    Plus could I argue that things timed before Thurs 7.15 I would have already dealt with, as I like to clear my list each night?

  6. If I knew at 7:15 that I needed to complete all of these items by the return of the headmaster, after the child protection issue, I would delegate items first, so evidence could be gathered before dealing with the issues (if the head of department/year didn’t deal with them). I do think the student heading to Poland is a child protection issue, for I find the lack of contact details on the letter an issue. I also could see the boys fighting as a safeguarding issue, for it is the second incident that they been involved in (it sounds like it would be escalated).

    I also think that these types of things should sign-post delegation or not.

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