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7 Questions with Matthew Burke
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7 Questions with Matthew Burke
Name: Matthew Burke
Current title: Headmaster
Current organisation: St Edward's, Cheltenham
Having been educated at Prior Park College I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship to study at University in Georgia, USA as part of the Georgia Rotary Student Programme. This was a great opportunity to broaden horizons but also genuinely experience a different culture and indeed I am still friends with students I studied with as well as host families who looked after me. I then studied for a BA (Hons) in Philosophy and Politics at Southampton University and having completed this began my teaching career at Downside School as a teacher of RE and resident tutor in one of the boarding houses. Following this I felt it important to secure a teacher training certificate and so completed by PGCE at Bristol University before taking up the role of RS teacher at St Columba’s College in St Albans and over seven years secured the role of Head of RS, Head of Politics and a Housemaster. During this time I also completed my studies in Catholic School Leadership at Maryvale Institute securing an Advanced Diploma in Education. We then moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands where I became Deputy Headmaster of De La Salle College where I also completed by NPQH at Cardiff University before our return to the mainland where I became Deputy Head at Our Lady’s, Abingdon as the school made the change from girls school to coeducational. After several happy years in Abingdon I was asked to become Headmaster of St Martha’s School in Barnet which six years later became Mount House School. In my last year of Headship the school was named in the Telegraph’s top 10 of small independent schools. I then spent two years working for the Inspired Learning Group dealing with new acquisitions, the international side of the company, quality assurance as well as filling in as acting Head on a few occasions. In April 2020 I became Headmaster of St Edward’s Senior School in Cheltenham and from September 2021 I will be the Principal of St Edward’s encompassing our Kindergarten, Prep Prep, Prep and Senior Schools.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
The biggest challenge for me has been the higher up you move in the education sector the less time you spend doing what brought you into the industry in the first place. I love to teach and still do teach – half of the A Level and our Year 9 students here at St Edward’s and this is important for a number of reasons. It is a great way to get to know the students but it is also important that when you are asking staff to complete tasks they know you are doing the same – marking essays, planning lessons, setting exams, writing reports and everything else that does alongside taking responsibility for a class. The challenge is managing this love of the job with the additional demands of leading a large institution like St Edward’s. Besides from the needs to ensure compliance with the necessary rules and regulations we must meet there is the marketing and HR side of the job as well as looking after the finances, the need to attend Trustee board and committee meetings as well as building and maintaining working relationships with staff, students, parents, former staff and parents and the wider community. I am very fortunate to have a phenomenal team here at St Edward’s whose expertise covers all of these areas and more and so the success that we have achieved is down to all members of our St Edward’s community uniting around one single aim – ensuring the best possible educational experience for each and every one of our students.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I hold the position I have now because, at various points in my career, other people have taken a chance on me. Being made Head of RS at St Columba’s College in my second year of teaching probably represented a gamble on their part but they saw something in me that they liked and that started me off on my journey of progression in the world of education leadership. I have held almost every rule there is to hold in a school and that has enabled me to have an understanding of and an appreciation for everyone and every role within the school. St Martha’s was a school that was in trouble when I became Headmaster but with a fantastic board of governors and a committed team of school staff we made rapid progression both in terms of student numbers but also academic outcomes for all the students. My time at the Inspired Learning Group provided me with an opportunity very few heads get – to be involved in many more aspects of the business and it is this experience that placed me in the strongest possible position to apply and be offered the role of Headmaster of St Edward’s here in Cheltenham. I take pride that three members of my senior leadership team at St Martha’s have gone on to secure Headships themselves and countless staff have secured promotions and started their leadership path under my watch and whilst it is sometimes disappointing to lose a great member of the team there also are times when it is right for them to spread their wings. It takes courage and bravery to put yourself up for leadership roles but knowing you are not alone, that there others you can call upon makes the decision to go for it a little easier. No matter how much preparation or qualifications you take nothing prepares you for the enormity of taking on the role of Headmaster until you do it but taking the plunge and challenging yourself as well as being what we encourage our students to do also presents some of the biggest rewards you could imagine.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I must start off by saying that whilst I try to role model positive behaviour and work ethics my wife and family will tell you it is a case of do as I say rather than as I do! When you have as part of your responsibility not only a duty of care to the significant number of staff whose livelihoods depend on the success of the school but also the future life opportunities of the hundreds of students who attend the school and the thousands who will follow in their footsteps it is difficult to switch off. I wake up around 5.30 each morning and will read the news and check emails. We will then have breakfast together as a family at around 7am and I am in my office by 7.30. At this point I will go through the day's schedule with my PA and have meetings with students, parents or staff until assembly time at 8.30am Twice a week I lead a whole school assembly which is a fantastic opportunity for the community to come together. My day between 9.00 am and 6.30pm is made up of teaching, learning walks in the school, meetings with students, staff, parents, prospective families and members of the Cheltenham community as well as checking in with the Senior Leadership team and having updates on any issues affecting the school or members of our community. We try to eat together as a family at around 7pm and unless there are board meetings or prospective family meetings that have to take place in the evening because of time difference there is time to spend together as a family unless there also happens to be a parents evening, information evening, open evening or question and answer session that we put on for our parents. No day is the same as any other but that is also a reason that I love the job I do.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
In fairness I think we are all in the position where we are learning all the time but the trick is to be open to these opportunities. This is so important because as leaders we must be honest with ourselves and admit that we do not have all the answers or have thought about all the possible solutions to the challenges we face. I would like to think that I have always listened and taken on board people's views and opinions but as was said to me recently by one of the outstanding staff we have here at St Edward’s - ultimately as a leader you have to make decisions and the hope is that those decisions are made with the interests of the business rather than for personal gain.
5. 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?
St Edward’s school embarked upon a High Performance Learning journey building on the work of Professor Deborah Ayer but the best starting point, as others who are greater than I, say start with why? Why do we come into teaching? Why do we do what we do? I entered teaching to ensure I could have a positive impact on the next generation. My subject is RS and having the ability to discuss key issues and ethical concepts is a real privilege but a book I also encourage parents and students to read is “You Are Awesome” by Matthew Syed. The entire premise of the book fits perfectly with my own educational philosophy – we should not be placing artificial limits on the levels of attainment our students can achieve but also ensuring they measure how successful they are not by comparison to their peers but through knowing they are progressing at a rate appropriate for them – all of us can be awesome.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Leadership capacity is an interesting question and especially to someone so new in their current role. There is always the possibility that with a change in leadership momentum can be lost or people can revert to old habits but the strength in leadership is the composition of the team at the top. It was important to me that I built on the programme of senior leadership secondment and so rather than one opportunity, I created two with specific responsibilities that they could speak and work with staff on. It is important that all members of them feel known. I made sure I offered personal conversations with every member of staff by the end of my first term and have done the same with all the students and their parents during this year and this provided me with an opportunity to get to know them, their dreams and their aspirations which means when opportunities come up or I need some specific help I am in a position to know who to call upon. There will always be those members of staff who have ambitions to progress their career and those who feel they are fulfilling their potential by inspiring generations of students in the classroom and every school needs both. Staff need to know you will support them in terms of their professional development and allow them to develop in the areas that are important to them. The hope is of course that these will align with the needs and aspirations of the school but if they do not no one has lost as you have a member of staff who feels enabled and supported and students who are being taught by someone passionate about their subject.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
For those that know me there was also always going to be a sporting link to this question. I believe there is so much the world of business and sport can learn from each other. A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a testimonial dinner for Neil de Kock who was retiring from playing rugby having spent over 10 years and having played 250 times for the club. Now being a Bath supporter it pains me to say this but I got to know Neil very well during my time at St Martha’s and he helped me shape St Martha’s way in the same way Saracens have their way. At this dinner I had the privilege of sitting between Maro Itoje and Eddie Jones and the two of them very politely entertained my questions and conversation during the meal. I learnt so much from Eddie Jones that evening and he probably does not even remember the conversation as I am sure he has many of these each and every day. But hearing about his teaching career, his playing career and his coaching career made me really think about my own career in education. We all experience extreme highs and lows in our lives and in our work but the idea of team spirit, togetherness and a united front is something I have tried to replicate ever since that dinner and I have a lot to thank Eddie for in giving me that time that evening. For someone who is at the top of their game, leading at the highest level but to give time and talk is an example to us all.