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7 Questions with Duncan Byrne
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7 Questions with Duncan Byrne
Name: Duncan Byrne
Current title: Headmaster
Current organisation: Loughborough Grammar School
I have been the 35th Headmaster of Loughborough Grammar School since April 2016. Following a Modern Languages degree, I began my career in London with my first responsibility post as Head of MFL at Whitgift School. After this, I was Assistant Head at Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, and Deputy Head (Academic) at Cheltenham College. At LGS, my focus has been to ensure boys engage fully with all aspects of school life, so that they can develop the empathy and collaborative skills that we help them to thrive as young adults.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?
Although remote schooling under Covid has of course required great flexibility and rapid decision-making, I would say that the greatest challenge in all of my leadership positions has been to provide a sense of balance to students' lives. Human beings like the idea of a simple, single focus, but life is complex, and young people will only achieve academically if they are confident in who they are. Our aim for LGS boys is that they can all make the following three statements about themselves: I know who I am; I like who I am; I'm good at being me.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I tend to wake relatively early, as I need some time to get my thoughts in order before a day's work. I'm lucky to live on site so there's no long journey to School, and I do a lot of my thinking before the rest of the house is awake. I will often bake something for my sons' breakfast while catching up on the news. As a modern linguist, I usually choose a European channel, as it's interesting to hear alternative perspectives. It's also important to keep my 'ear in' as foreign languages need regular training.
I tend to get into School shortly before 8, and staff know that this is the best time to drop in and catch me. It's difficult to talk about a 'normal' day in headship. Some days are filled with meetings, which of course has meant several hours online in recent months. As a rule, I try to get out of the office as much as possible, so that I can show pupils and staff that I'm interested in their work. I teach French to all Year 7 pupils on rotation, which means that I've taught all boys up to Year 11 in my five years at the School. As a consequence, boys are usually happy to speak to me: I think that this regular classroom engagement is fundamental to the type of approachable Head I seek to be.
I will always have lunch in the Dining Hall for two reasons: firstly, I am always starving by 1 o'clock - the adrenaline of the school day builds up an appetite! However, lunch is also a great opportunity to catch up with staff on a personal level. I try to avoid school conversations, instead focusing on what is going on in their lives.
Once lessons finish at 4 pm, there is the time to catch up with senior colleagues either to respond to emerging issues, or to plan future initiatives. I tend to walk the 200 metres home at about 5.30. Even though my in-tray is still likely to be busy, I have learned that I need a mental break at that point. 4-5 times a week, I will go for a run for up to an hour. I have got rather addicted to running over the past 20 years, but I find that it helps me to process the information taken in during the day, and to gain a sense of perspective on tricky problems that need to be solved. Loughborough as a town is a pleasant place to run with parks and canal tow paths when daylight allows. I have learned to avoid the University, as you tend to get overtaken by lithe young runners going at Paula Radcliffe pace.
Dinner is usually a simple affair after the hearty LGS lunch, but about three times a week, I will head out again to an evening event. The Grammar School is one of four institutions in the Loughborough Schools Foundation, and the size of our collective music, drama and academic endeavours means that there are plenty of events where students need my support.
I'm sorry to admit that I inevitably return to my computer around 9pm each evening, to keep the inbox and other admin under control. It's simply not the time for creative thinking! I don't watch television, except for the news and sport, so my last act of relaxation before bed tends to be the crossword and/or a little fiction before I turn in around 11 pm.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Don't hurry to solve problems. The Government's Covid U-turns has meant that taking a little time to consider our options has prevented plans from being undone. Senior leaders are hard-wired to be problem solvers, and we have a tendency to want to fix things as quickly as possible. This period where we have had no precedents to inform our thinking has made me realise that I need to encourage my SLT to take in a range of information from different sources before deciding what is the right course of action.
4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I would cite 'A Sense of Urgency' by John Kotter, which I encountered while doing my M.Ed in Educational Leadership. Creating this urgency is vital for any change management. We have an instinct as human beings to hold on to the routines we know. Unless we can create a powerful feeling that change is urgent, our initiatives are unlikely to be successful. In the past, I have tried to protect our colleagues from some of the uncomfortable realities of our schools, such as the financial pressures and negative feedback from parents. However, I've realised that we must ensure that staff understand the environment under which we are working socio-economically, but also closer to home in terms of our local reputation. We need to have a common understanding of our challenges in order to improve what we are providing to our students.
5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?
I am very interested by the schools in which applicants have worked. By reading the educational press avidly, you get an understanding of which schools are seeking to lead the sector. Staff who have worked in a dynamic school are usually the best positioned to make the next step to either middle or senior leadership.
Once you have appointed a strong leader, I think it's important to give them their head and therefore to avoid the tendency to micro-manage them. I want my senior leaders to own their area of the school, and therefore I need to accept that they won't necessarily always make the best decision first time. But who does? It's the same with Heads of Department and pastoral middle leaders. They need to be encouraged to innovate, and supported when colleagues are too invested in the status quo to engage with their ideas. If your middle and senior leaders have agency, they will give a great deal to the school before ultimately departing for promotion.
6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
Ensuring that every member of staff (and not just the teachers) understands that they have a vital role to play in the promotion of wellbeing. When teaching our academic subjects, it is too easy to focus on our immutable standards, insisting on rigour and deadlines and ignoring the personal issues that many of the students in our classes are dealing with on a daily basis. We must all think about the whole person. Unless our words and actions reinforce and build confidence, we cannot expect our pupils to achieve. Every single pupil interaction matters.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?
This is linked with the question above. I remember a girl who had failed to achieve the GCSE grades required to enter Sixth Form. She had fought with her demons during Years 10 and 11 not least due to a very difficult home situation. However, her Head of Year was adamant that we should admit her into Sixth Form, confident that he had seen the green shoots of potential once she could study three subjects that she had actively chosen. At a time when the School in question was seeking to bolster its position in the league tables, with greater selectivity part of the equation, I'm not sure that I would have admitted her without the passionate advocacy of my colleague. We ensured that she had the right mentoring in place from another colleague whom she trusted, and after two years she emerged from the Sixth Form with A*A*A at A Level. I had never believed that such a transformation was possible; that a student with only 3 B grades at GCSE could reach such heights. I have often thought about her in the years since, thinking that we must do everything we can to avoid placing a limit on ambition, and that we must look at every avenue to create the right environment for achievement.