30 minutes with…Jo Duncan, headmistress, Wycombe Abbey School

Some teachers have misconceptions about what it is like to work in a high-performing girls’ boarding school, Jo Duncan tells Irena Barker

Jo Duncan Wycombe Abbey

“I only considered leaving because I thought if I didn’t, I’d stay there until I retired,” says Jo Duncan of her first independent sector job as head of department and assistant housemistress at Benenden School.

She had been appointed there in 2001 after an initial stint in a state grammar school, and found she adored working in girls’ boarding.

“I absolutely loved it, boarding from then was definitely my thing and girls’ schools I felt was the right fit for me.”

The English literature and theology graduate cites the strong sense of community and “being part of something bigger” at Benenden that helped her realise the direction her career should take.

But she was keen to push herself out of her comfort zone, and before long  — with encouragement from Benenden’s head Claire Oulton — she applied for, and got, her first headship at Princess Helena College in Hertfordshire.

“It was a really interesting experience to be part of a bigger group, to have a CEO.”

While nervous about taking on the school during the 2008 global financial collapse, she embraced the challenge and spent seven happy years there before leaving in 2015 to lead the Royal High School Bath, part of the Girls’ Day School Trust.

She says: “It was a really interesting experience to be part of a bigger group, to have a CEO, a head office in London, lots of sharing of practice — quite different from a small standalone charity.”

She had no plans to leave, but when the headship of Wycombe Abbey came up in 2019, it was impossible to resist.

“Probably Wycombe was the only school I would have left for at that point,” she says.

Now, as the pandemic fades into the background, Duncan is getting her teeth into the strategic direction of one of the country’s most famous and successful independent schools.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into how we portray who we are to potential employees.”

One key focus in her strategic plan is developing how the school attracts new staff and develops existing ones.

It may come as a surprise to some, but working at a high-achieving boarding school with well-behaved girls can be daunting to some.

Duncan says: “We’ve put a lot of thought into how we portray who we are to potential employees, teaching and non-teaching, getting them to think about the reality of being here rather than preconceptions or misconceptions about it.

“Sometimes teachers, even very capable ones, perhaps look at the results and think it’s got to be a great deal of pressure and it’s not going to be for them. It’s about saying it’s everybody working together which enables the girls to achieve excellence.

“Where someone is not familiar with the independent sector, we’re certainly very keen to hear from them. Or they may know about the independent sector but say ‘I don’t want a boarding school’, or ‘what is a boarding school like?’

“We encourage people to consider it and be open-minded about it.”

“I often reflect on the impact I can have on these young women.”

The key once the staff are on board, she says is knowing them, supporting them, having high expectations and helping them understand the role that they play in the school.

“We listen to them and act on the feedback that we get,” says Duncan.

She also has plans for improving the school estate, connections with the outside world, bursaries and partnerships and future-proofing the curriculum.

But looking wider, what are her passions in education and what does she feel is neglected in schools?

“I really care about girls’ education,” she says without hesitation.

“I feel privileged to be leading a girls’ school, I often reflect on the impact I can have on these young women who I’m sure will go on to do fantastic things. I love leading a girls’ school and having that opportunity to be a role model as they grow.”

But governance, she says, does seem neglected as an issue in the sector as a whole.

“I have been doing the NPQEL (National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership) and I’ve become more interested in governance, and what good governance looks like and I think we probably don’t talk enough about that…”

And what are her pet peeves? Like many working in education the top one is “an expectation that schools will be responsible for everything in relation to our young people”. Support must be provided from outside as well, she says. Also, she is “irritated” by misconceptions about the independent sector.

“It’s time-consuming and there are times when I don’t want to get out of bed to walk the dog.”

“Sweeping generalisations and the lack of understanding, and the lazy stereotypes…this sense of ‘they’re all wealthy and can do whatever they want’. It’s unfair actually, it isn’t the reality of the situation,” she says.

But what of Duncan’s personal life? What does she do to switch off? Home, she says, is a “house by the water” in Northern Ireland, where she grew up. She visits during the main school holidays.

“That’s where I go to switch off, I see my school friends, nobody could care less about Wycombe Abbey, I can relax.”

And during term time? She has a son in Year 13 and a daughter in Year 11, but in lockdown she became one of the thousands of people to get a dog — a black labrador named Beau — who she takes for walks around the school estate.

“It’s been fantastic…it’s a chore but it’s fantastic,” she says. “I spend an awful lot of time walking around the school site and I think that’s been good in all kinds of ways…I’m all around areas of the site I wouldn’t necessarily be around twice a day, it’s good exercise, it gets me out in the fresh air.

I listen to lots of podcasts so that has been a joy, even though it’s time consuming and there are times when I don’t want to get out of bed to walk the dog.”

And the podcasts? High Performance by Jake Humphrey is a favourite, as are the Ed Mylett and John Maxwell leadership podcasts.

“I’m really really interested in how other people live their lives, particularly high performers,” adds Duncan.

Which is just as well, given her job.