Obituary - Joan Sjovoll

8th March 2013 at 00:00

An English teacher by training, Joan Sjovoll was nonetheless convinced of the importance of science education. The Durham headteacher oversaw the building of an art-filled science centre in her school and advised leading science organisations on ways the subject could be promoted nationally.

Ms Sjovoll did not tell anyone how old she was. She was, a colleague tactfully stated, "an experienced headteacher". But, several decades ago, she began her career as a secondary English teacher. Her career choice was motivated by her love of language. In later years, she would check every school letter or piece of PR material to ensure that it was well-written.

She wanted to make sure that her pupils were similarly able to express themselves confidently. And so she promoted in-school debating and oratory lessons.

But there were non-rhetorical conversations, too. She enjoyed the company of her pupils and always spoke to them as though they were her intellectual equals. She wanted to hear their opinions and valued what they had to say.

This became increasingly evident when she was appointed head of Deerness Valley Comprehensive in Durham and, in 2001, of nearby Framwellgate School. Whenever she was planning to make changes, whether to uniform, catering or the school campus, she would always ask pupils for feedback.

Education, she believed, should offer preparation for life, not simply for exams. Science and technology were growing fields in the North East, and increasingly she felt that it was vital for her and her pupils to understand the implications of research and technology. She spoke often to pupils about the spark of curiosity that was behind any technological advance.

Eventually, she became a trustee of two science education organisations, and oversaw the building of a science learning centre at Framwellgate. This centre included artwork based on scientific theories: one sculpture was formed out of primary numbers and magnetic spheres.

Increasingly, Ms Sjovoll was invited to strategy meetings at scientific organisations, including the Wellcome Trust. She could be acutely analytical in her approach to problems, but always coupled this with personal warmth. While she could be almost blunt in her opinions, she accompanied this with a willingness to step back and allow others to develop their own ideas. Similarly, she always made a point of considering the impact of any school-wide decisions on staff and pupils.

She was invariably the first to arrive in school, beginning her day before 7am. And she was usually the last to leave. "It's difficult to fit anything else in when you're that kind of headteacher," one colleague commented, when asked whether she had any outside interests. She did, however, have many inside-school interests. She mentored other heads and was invited to advise the National College for School Leadership and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

Joan Sjovoll died on 18 January, following a long illness. She is survived by her husband, Geir, and her daughter, Kirsten.

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