Sue Kirkham 20 October 1949 – 13 June 2012
I am where I am today, entirely because of her.
She made everyone feel special.
Words in the Book of Condolence, written by pupils, speak volumes about Mrs Sue Kirkham, headmistress of Alton Convent School. Mrs Kirkham, who sadly died on Wednesday June 13th 2012, saw the importance of education and had a great love for the young and all their potential. It was a love that was fully returned.
Pupils write about Mrs Kirkham’s guidance and support, her care, that she was a constant source of inspiration for me. One girl writes she gave me self confidence, another she was a wonderful influence on my life.
But through this comes something else – a sense of her vision. Words like revolutionary, strong and brave also appear. This is the story of someone who has turned Alton Convent School from a small educational establishment of 323 pupils without a sixth form where pupils started at age three into a school nearly twice the size with a thriving highly achieving sixth form and entry at six months (the Garden House Nursery is currently oversubscribed).
Sue Kirkham achieved a BA (Hons) and an MA at Durham University and began a teaching career before being fast tracked into the Civil Service at Whitehall. Sue and her husband Paul eventually set up home and raised their four children in Farnham where they lived for thirty years. Sue was an active member of the St Joan of Arc Catholic Church – when her own children were small she taught Children’s Liturgy there and continued afterwards as a very involved and active parishioner.
Sue was a devoted wife and mother, ensuring that her family of two boys and two girls, now very successful adults, were given every opportunity to achieve their best. This conviction that young people can, and should be, “the best that they can be” carried into her resumed teaching career.
She taught Sociology at two sixth form colleges – Alton College and Peter Symond’s, Winchester. Introducing an Access course for adults enabled her to put a firmly held belief into practice – that education is not just about qualifications but should be a life changing experience. Many remember with fond gratitude her willingness to help them as they reshaped their career paths and, with it, their lives.
In 1998 Sue became Headmistress at Alton Convent School. Everyone who knew her suspected she relished challenge, and here was proof. It also meant that she worked tirelessly to develop the school. Her vision included deciding, in 2000, to reopen the Sixth Form in a purpose built Centre in defiance of market trends and ignoring any sceptics who might have thought her dream fanciful and impractical. They were wrong. The sixth form quickly expanded beyond even the headmistress’ expectations enabling its students to become confident, self-assured women who have gained places at prestigious universities. Saddened at the news of her death, they have sent very loving messages to the school thanking their former headmistress for her vision and advice in shaping their lives. The words “inspiring” and “inspirational” are used over and over again.
Further visions were to follow. The Creative and Performance Arts Centre, a major building project with state of the art facilities, appeared in 2007. The School achieved and retained the Arts Gold mark … The Garden House Day Nursery with wrap around care fifty one weeks of the year came next and has resulted in a long waiting list. And even in her last illness Sue was still making plans. As a result the pupils will have brand new kitchens and a refurbished refectory in September.
However much she was unique and a visionary, Sue Kirkham also recognised the importance of placing a strong management team around her. As a result, the new acting headmaster, Graham Maher, and his senior management team, will be able to uphold the traditions Sue Kirkham has put in practice. Their determination is to ensure the school stays as the best it can be, and to make her proud.