By Paul Dobbyn
“I’M not an aggressive banging-the-table type of person in negotiations with education funding; it’s more about having people understand the story of Catholic education.”
Mike Byrne, who’s just retired after nine years at the helm of Queensland Catholic Education Commission, with these words gives an insight into many aspects of his character.
Mike’s quietly spoken, but his words carry the authority of experience and, as he said, his success in negotiation with relevant authorities rests mainly on “sound research feeding in from many sources”.
“It’s about being respectful … we also make sure we invite politicians into our Catholic schools to help them understand the quality product these schools deliver,” he said.
“We’ve got the runs on the board which helps too.”
Humility is part of Mike’s make-up – he’s much more interested talking about the “story of Catholic education” than his own story.
He’s happy to share the foundation for his passion.
“I went to school at St Laurence’s Christian Brothers College,” he said.
“I had aunties both on my father and mother’s side who were religious sisters and teachers.
“They were totally dedicated to their calling – two of them spent a significant amount of time in Papua New Guinea.”
A frequent part of conversation with Mike is about “the big wonderful family and sense of community which makes up Catholic schools”.
“Growing up in my parish of Yeronga and in the suburb of Yerongpilly, there was always a sense of being part of a big Catholic family, not only my own family but that of the school and parish,” he said.
“It was a lovely place to grow up with my mates from school, playing sport with them and so on.”
On finishing school, Mike felt a religious calling.
“I joined the Christian Brothers,” he said.
“I’m extremely grateful to the order for a great time of personal and spiritual formation which included four years of teaching.
“In this time I taught at Ingham’s Gilroy College and St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace.
“These were great years … I still have wonderful friends in the order.”
By now Mike also had teaching and economics degrees.
Looking for a complete change from the familiar, he spent three years teaching at Brisbane Boys’ College, “a Presbyterian/Methodist school”.
During this period he married Mary, a music teacher, and had the first of his children, Matthew and Dominic.
Just down the road, three years away in fact, lay a return to the Catholic education system and increased responsibilities, not only as a family man but as deputy principal and eventually principal.
“St Margaret Mary’s College in Townsville was a diocesan school but really run by the Good Samaritan Sisters,” Mike said.
“The sisters taught me so much about Catholic schools and education – for example, that St Margaret Mary’s was so much more than just a school.
“We were like one big extended family and there was also a great sense of community with the other schools in Townsville.”
It was also in this northern city that Mike and Mary added to their family with the births of Marissa and Fran.
“The Holy Spirit Parish was very much alive and a great influence on the children,” he said. “The fact after school they could go on to (James Cook) university was also a great blessing.”
Mike would eventually spend 28 years in the diocese.
After becoming a deputy principal in his late 20s, he went on to become principal, a secondary consultant, regional administrator and eventually deputy director, then director of the Townsville diocese’s education office, the position he held for 13 years.
All the while he was building a vast treasure house of experience and qualifications, which would eventually lead to the call to lead the QCEC.
Mike calls his time with the commission, starting in May 2006, “an incredible privilege” and “nine years of frenetic activity and energy”.
“It was the time of reformist Education Minister Anna Bligh – (then) premier, running the state, but with a keen eye on change,” he said.
“Our preschools were turning into Prep and every primary school was undergoing some transformation.
“The State election of 2006 gave way to the Federal election of 2007 and the beginning of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era.
“Long-time Prime Minister John Howard was defeated in his electorate by All Hallows’ girl Maxine McHugh.
“What was to follow was years of funding reviews, national partnerships and much time in airport lounges.”
And ultimately great funding boosts for Catholic schools – on the federal level with the Building the Education Revolution, which mainly focused primary schools.
“Here was a government giving us $450 million in Queensland and saying: ‘We just want you to build good buildings and we want you to do it quickly – there’s a two to three-year time window,” Mike said.
“On the the state level, we had funding for the move of Year 7 into high school.
“Dispersing all that money happened through the QCEC office so we were extraordinarily busy, not just this office but schools throughout the state.”
Several years after taking on this role, Mike received a further honour – the Australian Council of Educational Leaders Miller-Grassie Award for outstanding leadership in education.
Asked whether this award was something like an Oscar in education terms, Mike said, “maybe in some ways – ACEL is like a peak body, not just for Catholic education but across all schools in Australia”.
Again though he dodged his own story and added: “I was grateful to receive that award, but I’ve always believed the award recognised Catholic education as much as Mike Byrne the individual.”
As Mike heads into retirement, an obvious question was how someone with such obvious passion for his career would be able to disengage.
Mike admitted his long-term plans for the future weren’t definite but was unconcerned.
“It’s a new time in my life and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“Mary and I and most of the family are going to Ireland in a couple of weeks’ time.
“One of our sons, Dominic, is getting married to an Irish girl Jaki in Galway.
“So we’ll tour around Ireland then go on a cruise.
“We’re looking forward to that time … it will be a break from the hectic life which goes with the role.”
Mike said the future for the QCEC looked bright.
“It’s wonderful to see Dr Lee-Anne Perry as the commission’s new executive director,” he said.
“I’ve known Lee-Anne for most of my professional life.
“We actually ran an inter-school sports carnival together in our Townsville days without creating too much mayhem.
“As you know, Lee-Anne has been much loved in her role as principal of All Hallows’ School here in Brisbane.
“I am very confident she will bring a new dimension to the role.
“I wish her well in what I believe is the most wonderful job in Catholic education.”