Digital StillCameraValerie Stevens (née Dean, 1951-1958)

I graduated from Nottingham University with a degree in Geography, married Malcolm Stevens (who went to Boys’ Div.) and spent a few years as a teacher.  Then there was a gap while I had two children before reviewing a new book in 1969 called Population, Resources, Environment by Professor Paul Ehrlich, and was inspired to embark on a life-long career as an environmental campaigner.  Living now in Edinburgh, I learned public speaking from the zoologist Prof. Aubrey Manning and became active in the Conservation Society.  Moving on to Birmingham, I wrote for a new environmental magazine, had a monthly local radio programme, and wrote the population section for the manifesto of the newly formed Ecology Party (later the Green Party). I then spent the next twenty years working as a volunteer for Birmingham Friends of the Earth, ending up being elected to the national Board of Management.  I spoke at many national rallies (twice in Trafalgar Square) and conferences, as well as doing hundreds of talks to local schools and community organisations – not to mention trying to live as ‘lightly’ as we could on the earth.

In my later years (the early ‘noughties’) I was chair of Optimum Population Trust (now Population Matters), by then the only environmental organisation researching and publicising the link between human population growth and destruction of the natural environment.  This was a hard road to take because by this time (c. 2006) the left, other environmental groups, aid agencies, and the women’s movement, all insisted the link was invalid and other factors such as poverty were the cause.  OPT was even vilified as ‘fascist’. However, as we accrued patrons such as Jonathon Porritt, Jane Goodall, and Sir David Attenborough, we were taken more seriously.  We practically defined what ‘ecological sustainability’ is.  By the time I retired aged 70, I had developed a tough hide, learned considerable management skills and a reputation as a feisty public speaker on green issues.  I hardly earned any money at all in this career!

What is your connection to Bolton School?

I was at Bolton School from 1951 – 58.  My younger brother followed me, and both of us married former Bolton School pupils!

What would you say is your fondest Bolton School memory?

Taking the part of the elegant Gwendolyn Fairfax in the fine school production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Were you inspired by any particular members of staff?

I suppose Miss Higginson rather inspired me in the English lessons she gave.  I ached for her to pick me to deliver the Shakespeare soliloquy we’d had to learn for homework, or maybe one of Wordsworth’s poems – then I would bask in her praise.  In the 6th Form it was the dashing young Stella Daker, who became a friend in later years.

What do you think your Bolton School education gave you personally? 

Initially dreamy, introverted, and undersized, I gradually learned to be more assertive and confident, and seized opportunities to shine in literature, drama and music. That made up for being always the last to be picked for any games period team.  I made lifelong friends, who valued me for what I was, and never scorned the very humble home I came from – no bathroom, no indoor loo!  Bolton School gave me a strong sense of being privileged, and being therefore required to serve society in whatever way I could in my adult life.

What career advice would you give to today’s Bolton School pupils?

For your own self-respect you must choose work that contributes to making a better world.  And how should we define ‘better’?  I don’t mean making things more and more comfortable for human beings – a spectacularly successful species – but work that addresses the massive problems the world faces from climate change, species extinction, through to unprecedented human population growth.  The work might be in the sciences, in technology, politics, new economics, or education. Don’t think about how much money you might make, but follow your heart and your conscience.  Be part of the solution!

What do you think about Bolton School’s aim to re-establish open access through boosting its Bursary Fund?

If Bolton School had been independent in 1951 instead of state supported – what was termed ‘grant-aided’- I would not have been given a County Scholarship to attend.   My family really struggled: my mother worked in Bolton Market Hall five days a week and my father owned a village garage business where some weeks he couldn’t pay himself a wage at all.  We lived in a rented terraced house with no indoor plumbing and could not afford anything better.  So my heart goes out to children who are bright, and for whom Bolton School would be a great opportunity, but whose parents can in no way afford the fees. There are no Local Education Authority grants to send such children to independent schools.  So the bursary fund is vitally important for assisting such families – to allow a bright child to have the enriching experiences that I had.