“At the time you think, ‘Yes, this is the right decision’,” says Valerie Dunsford, who is about to retire after more than 14 years as head of Sheffield High School.
“Then as it gets closer you start to panic and think ‘Is there a life beyond school?’”
The headmistress’s job has been all-consuming, keeping her around long after the weekday bell has sounded. Concerts, sports fixtures and debating competitions have occupied her weekends and ‘more or less’ each evening – not that she is complaining.
“It becomes your hobby. I’ve got to work out who I am again,” she says with an apprehensive laugh.
Founded in 1878, the private school in Broomhill is much more than a secondary – its website uses the name Sheffield Girls’, as it offers seamless single-sex education for around 1,000 pupils aged three to 18. Academic results are always outstanding – a quarter of the 95 girls who sat A-levels last summer achieved straight A*/A results, and every year 10 per cent of sixth form students apply for Oxbridge places.
Lessons have started by the time we meet in Valerie’s comfortable office. The corridors are hushed – there’s no shouting or disruption from the classrooms, just the occasional glimpse of purposeful girls working.
Valerie knows this is not the norm for anyone familiar with some of the country’s rowdier comprehensives.
Originally from Huddersfield, she was educated at a non-private girls’ school then, after university in Manchester, taught languages at state secondaries in Halifax and inner-city Byker, in Newcastle.
The latter was, she says, an ‘interesting experience’. “Especially trying to teach languages to children who’ve never been outside of Newcastle. Trying to teach them French and Spanish was not the easiest of jobs.”
She has a good line in disarming smiles, and I sense she would be adept at talking to anyone.
Later, when Valerie applied – successfully – to be head of languages at Durham High School, she had ‘no idea it was a private girls’ school’.
“When I got there it was so quiet. I thought it was closed. There were no kids being thrown out of the classrooms or anything.”
She stayed at Durham for 17 years, becoming head of its sixth form, then deputy head, with no intention of leaving. But she had already started seeing other places as a member of the Independent Schools Inspectorate, and was very taken with Sheffield on a visit, two years before she joined in 2004.
“I loved the whole feel of the school. It was lovely sunny weather, the grounds looked glorious, and I thought – that’s where I want to work. I said, ‘If that job ever comes up, I want to apply’. About six months later it was advertised; I got it and thought ‘My goodness’. Nobody ever teaches you how to be a headteacher. You just come into the profession.”
Having experienced the sharp end of education, she believes independent schools must not stand aloof and should share at least some of their privileges. “One of the things I’ve wanted to do is make us a real part of the community, so we’re not that private school closed to the rest of the world.”
Sheffield Girls’ has been building links with the city’s South East Learning Partnership, which includes primaries in Gleadless, Arbourthorne and the Manor.
One programme, Shine, has been running for six years on Saturday mornings. Around 45 children visit Broomhill ‘who perhaps need to develop a bit more confidence with their learning’, says Valerie.
“They call it ‘serious fun’. They’re mentored by our sixth formers and we have a big celebration at the end where their parents come in.”
Another scheme, Cool to be Clever, has been picked up by the Government as a case study. The learning partnership nominates bright children to attend sessions at the high school, guided by Y10 and Y11 pupils, as well as workshops at Sheffield University.
“It’s trying to sow those seeds of aspiration for families who might not have had any experience of university education. Hopefully they’ll carry on and think ‘Yes, I can be an engineer or a lawyer’. It’s been a fantastic project. Hopefully it will start to be rolled out in other cities across the UK.”
Valerie’s staff have taught Latin to children from Arbourthorne and Gleadless, in a bid to boost their understanding of vocabulary. The new English SATs tests require a high level of reading comprehension, and modern GCSEs are tougher too, she thinks.
“They’re looking for the inference of the question that you’ve got to draw out from the text. And with the A-levels, the move to linear exams is so much more difficult. It’s back to when I was at school where you’ve got to learn a full two years’ of work to put in one exam. The pressure on them is massive. The modular system was far more sensible, because life is about an ongoing process of learning.”
But surely girls at Sheffield High get the gold standard in education. Doesn’t every child deserve this?
“The standard we offer is, I think, the same that’s available at every other school,” Valerie answers carefully. “It’s how the students are encouraged to take advantage of every opportunity they’re given. Your curriculum might be the same, but actually you’ve got to ensure your children are going to access everything.”
For instance, all pupils take part in extra activities like learning musical instruments, sport, drama and science, ‘because everyone else is’.
“It’s not always cool in other schools to get involved.”
Teachers are on hand to offer one-to-one support, ‘at any time’. “In some schools you don’t want to be seen as the person asking the teacher for extra help. But here, everybody does. That helps them get the results.”
The quality, she says, comes from ‘developing self-belief’ and ‘making pathways’ – enabling children to build on their interests in science, say, or writing.
But she admits: “It’s easier to do it when you’re in a smaller environment. Sometimes in state schools, the pressure – because there are so many in the classes – means you’re perhaps limited.”
Valerie has been able to greet every pupil by name. “Not just that, I’ll know something about them. I’ll know that, actually, one got their Grade 5 music exam last week, or they were on the hockey team. They feel they are somebody, that they’re important.”
All this comes at a price. Annual fees are as much as £12,975 for Y7 to Y11, and Valerie fully recognises that parents pay substantial sums to give their children the best advantage.
“It’s a choice. Some people have come through that system themselves – others have a child with a specific interest or need.”
The high school, she adds, instils qualities in its pupils that are hard to neatly package, ‘soft skills’ like employability, resilience and teamwork.
Twenty per cent of students are on scholarships – either fully or partially funded, mostly means-tested and generally paid for through donations from alumni.
“We have a massive demand for those. We cover all social backgrounds.”
When teenagers leave they become part of a vast, 70,000-strong alumni network across the Girls’ Day School Trust, Sheffield High’s parent organisation. They include City bankers, entrepreneurs and other notable women such as writers A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble.
“We have a saying here, ‘You might be leaving us but you’ll always be a Sheffield High School girl, wherever you are’. They recite that to me.”
Valerie will leave a concrete legacy – she has overseen a £2.5 million refurbishment of the gym, and put cookery back on the timetable in 2015 to meet popular demand courtesy of a shiny £300,000 kitchen. Sheffield Girls’ merged with nearby Ashdell Prep, too, in 2017, creating a single institution.
Her successor in September is Nina Gunson, a former deputy head at Sheffield High School who returns from Wakefield Girls’. “She understands the ethos.”
From The Handmaid’s Tale and #MeToo to the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, conversations about women’s rights are back on the agenda in a big way. Where does Sheffield High fit in this landscape?
“I did an assembly on it recently,” says Valerie. “I’ve talked to a lot of girls about gender inequality, and they’ve never experienced it – when you’re in a girls’ school, you don’t. You are taught to believe you can do anything and no-one is going to hold you back. It doesn’t enter their heads that they might not be treated as equals.”
Valerie, 58, is married to Steve, another retired teacher who used to teach PE at Wickersley School. They live in Rotherham and have two daughters – police officer Stephanie, 30, and Emma, 28, who has followed her parents into education.
The future will involve continuing as an inspector, including assessing schools overseas – recent trips have taken Valerie to Malaysia, Germany and China. She is also a trustee of the Astrea Academy Trust, which has 22 schools mainly in South Yorkshire, among them the £25 million new secondary that opens in September on the old Pye Bank site in Burngreave.
“But I won’t be doing 80-hour weeks. I’ve got to take things a bit more slowly, I think.”
‘I can’t see the word ‘category’ without cringing’
Five years on, Valerie Dunsford still groans at the memory of a misspelled sign at Sheffield High School that went viral.
In 2013, a new notice was put up outside announcing that the Independent Schools Inspectorate had given it the top rating in every category – or ‘catergory’, as a typing error put it.
A passer-by took a photo that was shared widely across the internet.
“If I could erase certain days that would be one of them,” says Valerie. “I can’t see the word ‘category’ now without cringing. We’d worked with the signwriter for years. We were getting emails from all over the world.”
The mistake was swiftly corrected, and Valerie managed to use the slip-up as a salutory lesson to pupils about the importance of checking spellings, and the merciless nature of social media.
“I got some great assemblies out of it.”