Jean joins us today as an eminent chemist: a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry for nearly 35 years; a successful educator: as headmistress at two prestigious girls’ schools; and an ardent philanthropist: helping impoverished children in Africa improve their lives through education.
But she was very nearly none of these things. The successful, pioneering and inspiring career that we are celebrating today almost never happened.
As a conscientious school girl in Denton, just down the road from here, Jean was regularly top of her year group and fascinated by science. But she was dissuaded from studying to A-level by well meaning, but ultimately ill-informed, family and friends.
Since there were no graduates in her family or working class circle of friends, Jean wrongly assumed that University would not be an option for her. An assumption that Jean has spent much of her adult life over-turning, helping people from all backgrounds access education.
So instead at 16 years’ old Jean took a job at ICI, where her abilities were quickly spotted. Within weeks, her work colleagues encouraged her to reconsider the idea of university. And fortunately for us, she did.
Jean enrolled at a local college and studied for her A-levels part-time. On completing them, she successfully applied to study chemistry here at Manchester. She lived at home for the duration of her course, getting dropped off at the university by her father on the way to work every day, and picked up again at the end of the day.
At graduation, Jean and the other women on her course – 15 out of 150 students – were given three career choices – work in a patent office, computing, or teaching. Virtually all of them chose teaching. And the foundations were laid for Jean’s almost 50 years of success as an educator, a headmistress, inspector and examiner.
She achieved headships at two prestigious girls’ schools in the UK, followed by inspecting science and mathematics in post-16 education, as well as becoming chief examiner for A-level chemistry and principal examiner for several other papers. Jean is now a Chartered Chemist and has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry since 1980, 10 years after she first became an Associate Member.
In 2004, however, her career – and her life – took an unexpected twist. Jean attended a lecture in Birmingham by a visiting Iraqi bishop. During the interval, she got chatting to a missionary priest from Africa. It turned out to be a fateful meeting.
At 59 and with her inspection career in the UK winding down, Jean mentioned she’d like to put her skills to good use in Africa. A few months later she was invited to a school in Uganda for two weeks and, in her own words, she was hooked.
She returned the following year – and has been making several visits every year for the past 10 years.
It is in East Africa, as a champion of education for the underprivileged, that Jean has made the biggest difference to improving opportunities for others.
She has made around 25 visits to run courses for chemistry teachers and students, in Rwanda, Ethiopia and particularly Uganda. Next month she leaves for another 5-week stint.
She has raised money for new laboratories and libraries, equipped with donated books and equipment collected, packed and sent out by Jean, at her own expense. She even donated some of her teaching pension to help build a school hall.
In 2013, she raised funds to build a new primary school near Congo and is working with an adjacent secondary school to provide laboratory facilities for training courses and A-level teaching, determined to help ensure that the education of underprivileged children in East Africa is not curtailed in the way that her own very nearly was.