Sancton Wood School
Jill Sturdy was a fearless pioneer who left a complex, but valuable legacy. Unusually for the time (1970s) and place (Cambridge), she, and her husband, the Rev John Sturdy, Dean of Gonville and Caius College, enlarged their family by adopting nine children to augment their three 'natural' children. Both the college and the wider community of Cambridge reacted with narrow minds, raised eyebrows, and, from some school children, abusive racism.
Undeterred, she said “If I can't find a school to teach my children, I'll start my own”. And so Sancton Wood school began. Taking the name of the architect of the railway station in Cambridge and located in premises on Station Road, it opened in 1976 as a primary school with 11 pupils. Her philosophy evolved with practice – inevitably it valued small class sizes, and close, individual attention. It also always had an underlying ethos of Christian love and support – many of the first pupils were those who other schools had turned away in despair. They were shown, through high expectations and endless support, that they, too, could succeed if they really wanted to.
The school grew quickly and in 1979 took additional premises in 1 and 2 St Paul's Road, a pair of large four-storey Victorian houses which had been divided up into many flats. The infant school took one side and the senior school the other. The family moved in to the top floor and, as the tenants moved out, the family expanded downwards and the school expanded upwards, eventually finding a workable equilibrium. The junior school remained at Station Road where it developed its own quirky identity, focusing rather more on character than curriculum.
The extra garden space at St Pauls Road allowed Jill Sturdy to establish what turned out to be her most memorable innovation, what would now be called animal-assisted education. Having been a passionate animal lover all her life, at St Paul's Road the family's collection expanded rapidly into a Durrell-type menagerie manor. Over the years there were lots of cats, several dogs, goats, Vietnamese pot-bellied bigs (adorable but the neighbours hated the smells), axolotls (hideous), one python, rats, chinchillas, tortoises, terrapins, and donkeys, one so bad-tempered he was named Lucifer, and one, more placid but much more famous, as he was born having been transplanted into a horse's womb.
Adoption is now a complex topic, mixed-race adoption even more so. We never fully understood Jill's motivations and she gave many different answers when asked to explain. The answer I remember most clearly stands as a definitive statement of her belief: “Love is different from everything else – it grows as you give it away. The more love you give, the more love you have.”
Sancton Wood grew steadily until it had around 150 pupils. Its finances were more erratic, largely because Jill Sturdy deliberately kept the fees as low as possible. She believed that there was a large market of families who could not afford 'premium' private education but were disappointed with the free state alternative. Nevertheless by 1990 it had established itself as a small, moral school with outstanding pastoral care and surprisingly good academic results.
At this point, internal family stresses started to make themselves felt in the form of various illnesses. The Rev John Sturdy was diagnosed with heart problems, while Jill became increasingly unwell with depression and late onset anorexia. One of their daughters, Tabitha, developed a rare bone cancer in her hip which was treated but not fully cured. Then three deaths came in quick succession. In 1996 John Sturdy died of heart failure. In 1997 Tabitha Sturdy died of bone cancer. In 1998 Jill Sturdy died of breast cancer.
Since John had been, in effect, the school bursar, as well as being Dean of Caius College and Chief Librarian of Cambridge University's Divinity Library, there was a sudden vacancy after his loss and his daughter Harriet Sturdy took over the role of bursar. Harriet had just finished her Ph.D at Glasgow University on the history of community care of lunatics in Scotland and had moved back to Cambridge to help the family.
A very long, and appallingly badly managed, estate transfer nearly caused the school to fold; on a day to day level it was held together brilliantly by Harriet working with Jill's former deputy, Julia Avis, who became the school's second headmistress. Business matters were finally concluded with the launch in 2000 of Sancton Wood in a new vehicle, owned and run by the Sturdy siblings. The Directors of this new private limited company were Daniel and Harriet Sturdy, both of whom were now fully involved in school life.
As their understanding and awareness of schools in Cambridge developed, one big gap seemed clear: specialist provision for dyslexics. In 2004 they launched a new school, Holme Court, for dyslexics, with Julia Avis as the Headmistress. This left a large gap at Sancton Wood which was filled, rather astonishingly, by the man who had succeeded Rev John Sturdy as Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Rev Jack McDonald. Not many people can say they have succeeded both partners in a marriage, especially in two such separate fields: Dean of Caius and Principal of Sancton Wood.
Jack was persuaded back into the arms of the church with a complicated job, some of which involves representing the Anglican church in Brussels. His own deputy, Richard Settle, stepped up in 2009 into the role of Headmaster, a job which he continues to perform with gregariousness and impressive drive.
The Sturdy family decided to sell the school at the end of 2012; the long and arduous process of offers, negotiations and due diligence ended on 6 March 2014 with the sale of 100% of the shares to Aatif Hassan's Minerva Education which itself became part of Dukes Education in 2018. Since then Sancton Wood has thrived and it continues to respect its founder's legacy.
Rather sadly there is very little information about either John or Jill Sturdy on the internet. This page retrieves from the Wayback Archive an old obituary of Jill Sturdy, written by her daughter, Harriet.