Schools Awards - 'You can't change kids overnight. That's what I like about them'

14th January 2011 at 00:00
PE department head Alan Byrne scooped the TES Lifetime Achievement Award for a transformational teaching style that combines toughness with humanity

Scientists say perpetual motion is impossible. But that's because they've never met Alan Byrne, head of the PE department at Stonelaw High School, Rutherglen, and winner of TES's Lifetime Achievement Award last year.

When seated, Mr Byrne's hands emphasise every point he makes. When standing, he moves lightly from one foot to another, like a dancer on hot coals. All that energy is called into play at the Christmas dance practice.

"Quiet!" Mr Byrne commands and silence falls. "This lot here," he points to a set whose first effort was a shambles. "You have no chance of winning a lollipop. Music talks, but you have to listen. You were walking like this, when you should have been skipping in time to the music, like this."

He takes hold of PE colleague Irene Hay and demonstrates effortlessly how the Virginia reel should be done. It's a non-stop performance. How does any teacher maintain this level of enthusiasm for a job that sees much younger colleagues desperate to retire?

"The kids keep you going," Mr Byrne says. "Teaching is about your relationship with them. It's about personality. I don't think mine has changed over the years. But the kids have. They dispute everything now. Teachers don't automatically get respect. You have to earn it.

"I'm strict. We insist on manners and good behaviour. But it's about how you get that. If you just shout you'll get nowhere. You have to size them up, find out what works with each of them. They're all different."

Being strict creates a structure that young people need for learning, he believes. "Once they know where they stand, you can all have fun. I've two boys in first year who were complete nuisances when they came. But on the board where we celebrate success, there's a photo of those boys with a caption that says 'most improved attitude'."

What made the difference was firmness and talking to the lads about their behaviour.

"They got their say, then I told them how it was going to be. They can still be nuisances - you can't change kids overnight. That's what I like about them - they're all individuals. We are strict here, but we care. We think about what's best for the kids and we have fun."

That was the motivation, he admits, at the start of his career. "I loved the idea of being paid to play football. But my headteacher took me into his room and said: 'You've been accepted to do maths at university and you've also applied for PE. Which are you going to do?'

"I told him PE and I remember his reaction to this day. He looked at me and said: 'You stupid boy.'"

"But I've never regretted that decision." says Mr Byrne. "People sometimes ask why I'm not a head. But I've so much to offer in my own subject at school and national level. Last weekend I was vetting the Higher PE paper for 2012. Until recently I was principal assessor for the Scottish Qualifications Authority."

The TES Award recognised Mr Byrne's contribution as a PE teacher for 40 years, 27 of which have been at Stonelaw. His nomination, by Mr Byrne's colleagues, includes recognition of the course materials he has written, used in more than 100 schools, and of Stonelaw High having some of the best PE exam results in Scotland. The school produced seven internationals in six sports this year alone, while last year it had four Scottish Cup-winning teams.

But he is not only interested in the high performers. "We want everybody to achieve. But that means using different tactics on different groups."

So Stonelaw High is the only school in Scotland, Mr Byrne says, where pupils are put in sets according to ability and fitness within weeks of their arrival. "We now teach to talented sections, middle groups and fitness sections."

The impetus for setting came from tests that showed fitness levels among first and second year pupils had plummeted.

Three periods of PE a week were introduced and the curriculum matched to the abilities of each group. The results have been startling. Fitness levels have risen all round. Pupils who used to hate PE are enjoying it and achieving. The Stonelaw methods have been highlighted as good practice by HM Inspectors.

"I got one letter from parents saying their son was loving his football now, which surprised them," says Mr Byrne.

"'I always liked it,' the boy told them. 'But nobody passed to me before.'"

With talented pupils grouped together, teachers can push them to new levels. "If all schools did this, it might well filter through to our teams at national level," says Mr Byrne.

Back at the dance practice, it's time to decide the destination of the lollipops. Mr Byrne jogs to the far corner of the hall. "Well done," he tells the pupils, unscrewing the jar and distributing its contents.

The lollipops don't look that appetising, but the dancers are delighted, and between contented licks one young lad explains exactly why: "We got them because we were the best." Much like their PE teacher.

COLLEAGUE'S VIEW - 'A really nice person and a great manager'

What's Alan Byrne like as a colleague? Here, Stonelaw High principal teacher Irene Hay, who has taught PE there for over 20 years, describes a man of enormous compassion

He is a buzzball of energy. So we're always on the go, always taking on extra-curricular work and activities to raise money for charity.

It is sometimes hard to keep up with him. He has a mathematical brain, so everything is planned out in detail - and because he is so resourceful and organised, the kids get more of our time.

The Byrnes are a very caring family, always doing things for other people. His wife, Fiona, works with special needs children.

They had a daughter, Louise, a wee soul who was a huge part of their lives, and still is.

Doctors diagnosed a fatal illness when she was three. She died on her 14th birthday.

Alan and Fiona find it hard that people don't talk about Louise. They want her to be remembered.

Their son, Derek, is another inspirational PE teacher. He's a chip off the old block. I taught him when he was a pupil.

It's a very happy PE department. You don't get that unless you have a really nice person, as well as a great manager.

You need the human touch. Alan initiates so many wonderful things, all with the children at heart.

It's a lifetime achievement because all his life he has never changed, never slowed down. We are so proud of him.


Entries are open for the 2011 TES Schools Awards (TESSAs), which celebrate outstanding teams in the UK state and independent sector.

The TESSAs recognise innovation in teaching, leadership and community involvement. There are three new awards this year: Best Business Team; Best Financial Partner or School Funding Initiative; and Best School Website.

The entry deadline is 5pm on 11 March 2011. The shortlist will be announced in April and the winners revealed at a gala luncheon in June.

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