Like many in the last couple of years, Nicola Dudley has changed jobs and moved house. But few will have experienced the degree of contrast she has.
Last year, she left her busy post as founding deputy head of 1,000 pupil Malvern College Hong Kong and has now settled into the role of head at Surval Montreux in Switzerland.
Pictures of the tiny former finishing school on the banks of Lake Leman present a stunning vista of snow-topped mountains and water that would turn any city headteacher’s head.
“There is the most beautiful view that I’m looking out at of the lake and the mountains beyond,” says Dudley, who is, unsurprisingly, an outdoors enthusiast with a degree in French and German.
While she loved the bustle of Hong Kong she says she also likes “adventure and new challenges” and the highly personalised approach at the all-girls school attracted her.
“I was looking to move back to Europe and this school just sang to me.”
Catering for 60 girls of all academic abilities, Surval once had a reputation as an old-fashioned finishing school, although this is something Nicola is keen to dispel.
Girls aged 12 to 19 who board here are given a thoroughly modern education that equips them to thrive in the world of international business, law, diplomacy and social enterprise.
While some girls stay for a shorter “Swiss Gap” intensive programme, many spend their whole secondary careers here picking up a range of US high school qualifications offered alongside iGCSEs and A-levels.
“I was looking to move back to Europe and this school just sang to me,” says Dudley, “but I wanted to stay international because I just love the openness of international schools and international mindednesss and what we’re instilling in this environment.”
An alumna of Wycombe Abbey School, she is also highly in favour of girls’ education – although this was not always the case.
She says: “When I went into my career I was very adamant that it was co-educational and why would I go back to an all girls school, but as I got older and my career has progressed, I’ve increasingly recognised the impact and I’m definitely an advocate now for the power of an all-girls environment.”
“We do teach etiquette explicitly but it’s not about preparing them to be based in the home.”
While the traditional concept of a “finishing school” and etiquette lessons can be easily mocked, Dudley strongly believes that there is still an important place for a modernised version of this in Surval’s education programme.
One of the core pillars at Surval, she says, is “global perspectives” which includes global etiquette and awareness.
“I suppose it’s linked with our legacy as a finishing school in the early days, but to me it’s about etiquette in a modern sense and fit for the modern world.
“We do teach etiquette explicitly but it’s for the modern woman, it’s not about preparing them to be based in the home, that’s not what we’re trying to do. It is about empowering by giving them that awareness and sensitivity.
“So they have the confidence to go into whatever global workplace in the future and sit at the table in the business or dining sense and know that they’ve thought about this. We emphasise courtesy a lot, fairness and respect.”
“Dudley is able to get to know all the pupils, one of the joys of running the place.”
Pupils at Surval come from all over the world, and currently there are 18 nationalities represented, including pupils from Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, UK and Japan.
And because of the size of the school, Dudley is able to get to know all the pupils, one of the joys of running the place, she says.
The opportunity to be hands-on has provided useful perspectives, she says. “With this being my first year in post, it’s really important that you have an insight into every aspect of the school, there are things where I think ‘would a head be doing this in another school?’
“I’m still in that first year, going through everything for the first time, putting all of the pieces together.“
But she stresses that being part of the Bellevue Group is reassuring and she never feels alone in her task.
So what are her goals for the school, that intends to stay small?
“I’ve got a very clear sense of the direction of the school,” she says. “It has so much potential, all the ingredients are there and it’s just pulling that together and raising it up and ensuring that we are providing that really modern education for young women.”
“She wants the school to play to its strength of being small and make the best use of its natural environment.”
She explains that the school has three new members of its leadership team, including a new head of teaching, learning and assessment, head of enrichment and head of pastoral care and wellbeing.
She says: “It’s a clear sign we are wanting to deliver excellence in all those three areas and raise the school to be an academically credible school where, because it’s small, and it’s had various identities over the years, making sure that we are clear what we are and making those expectations very clear.”
She also wants the school to play to its strength of being small and make the best use of the stunning natural environment it is in.
Indeed, Dudley says she has also benefited from this, enjoying skiing with the girls and looking forward to some running and open water swimming this summer.
“However hard you’re working the environment does keep you balanced. I’m definitely feeling well for the fresh air.”
And Dudley is proving a breath of fresh air for Surval, it seems.