30 Jun 2017

Alex Hems: Head's Blog June 30, 2017

Speech Day Address June 2017

Alex Hems for websiteMr Brewer, Mrs Norrie, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen and students of St George’s, it is my great privilege and pleasure to stand here before you, to report on this year at school and to say some words about our Upper Sixth as they prepare to leave this school and launch themselves into the next stage of their lives.

One of the many characteristics of St George’s that attracted me before I arrived here was the sense of the school as a strong community, even a family, and that it is truly a through-school in spirit, not just in name. A few weeks ago, when I was reading through the information about every one of our leavers that you have in your programmes, I was struck by how many of them are Gold or Platinum badge holders and therefore really do know the school inside out. The giving of these badges is a lovely tradition, and one that is extended to staff who have served a significant number of years. A few days ago, just before the Old Girls’ lunch, a number of staff who are retiring at the end of this term were awarded their Gold Badges by the OGs association. The fact that so many staff stay for so long here, some giving almost all of their working lives to this school, is another tribute; this is an environment that is constantly stimulating and rewarding to work in. Inevitably since I have been here I have occasionally asked about why such and such happens in the way it does, and it is a great credit to my colleagues that not one person has said, ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. This is a school that is open to new ideas, creative, energetic and full of purpose, qualities that I think are embodied in our Leavers this year.

I shall not name individual girls in my address; I am delighted that we will be able to celebrate every one of you as you cross the stage. For some, achievements are public and easily recognisable in a public context; for many others the achievements of this year have been personal and maybe less quantifiable. What truly matters is that we know that every girl here has set herself high standards and has striven to meet them. There have been a few moments in these, my first six months here, which have helped to define the essence of St George’s for me. One was your Revue girls, in which your intelligence and skill shone through, but they were so sensitively tempered with affection and warmth for your teachers. Thank you, and well done to all of you. My first real encounter with this year group came before I had officially started here, when I was visiting last November. I was given a half hour slot with the Upper Sixth, for some Q and A. While I did have the chance to ask the odd question, I think it is fair to say that the interrogation, although friendly, was reasonably one-sided. Their questions were wide-ranging, thoughtful and definitely kept me on my toes. The next time I met them was at their Burns Night dinner at the end of my first week here. I remember a most entertaining and witty performance by the two comperes for the night, the Selkirk Grace, a spirited reply to the toast to the lassies and an accomplished address to the Haggis. This event followed hot on the heels of a highly successful Upper 6 Ball, with a Great Gatsby them. The memorable decorations, organised by the Senior Prefect and her team, including huge floral displays complete with feathers and pearls and balloons hanging from the ceiling of the Crush Hall, captured the mood of opulence and luxury perfectly. The Autumn term also saw their production of Alice Through the Looking Glass in which so many of you were involved in one way or another. That production will have meant a great deal to all who took part in it; thank you girls for your efforts and creative energy.

We look to the Upper Sixth to be leaders across the school, embodying the concept of the ‘servant leader’ and I am very grateful to this year’s prefects and student leadership team for their hard work and energy in carrying out their roles. The Form Prefects play such a key role for younger girls; I can still remember how much those 6th formers meant to my class when I was 11 or 12, indeed I can still remember some of their names, and we thank all of those girls who, by being reliable, cheerful and energetic have been excellent role models in Junior and Lower School. The Charity Prefects inspired the school to produce beautifully wrapped parcels of carefully laundered and folded clothes for the charity Kids Love Clothes; the piles threatened to overwhelm the crush hall at one point but were a tribute to the enthusiasm of the school to support this excellent charity. The House Captains and their Vice Captains have coordinated energetic and varied house activities throughout the year and it has been so encouraging to see them working alongside the youngest girls in the school when they assist with Junior School House activities. The International Prefects led a most thought-provoking assembly for International Women’s Day, in which a number of you took part, challenging us to consider the role of quotas in tackling gender imbalance in the role of work. This is something that girls in the Lower School have also been considering this year, having been inspired by a Girls’ Schools Association initiative, which has led them to conduct a number of interviews, including one with Mr Brewer, our Chairman of Governors. I have been deeply impressed by the maturity and energy they brought to this project. The young women of today will not need to fight for access to a university education in the way that their predecessors and the women who founded this school did, but it was clear from some of the answers to the questionnaire sent out to Old Girls, that there is much work to do in this regard. It is one of the great strengths of girls’ schools that they encourage girls to see themselves as potential leaders in any field. Our leavers have taken their responsibilities very seriously and carried out their roles with energy and commitment.  The editors and production team behind Independent Women have brought us three stunning issues this year, reporting not only on school life but on politics, social issues and culture and are to be congratulated on achieving nominations in two categories of the Shine Media Awards, a national competition for school magazines: Environmental Strategy and Best Community Initiative (for the Diversity Day issue) and were awarded a runners up place for the former. Next week Mrs Armstrong and I will have the privilege of watching a number of our leaving year receive their Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Awards, a truly impressive achievement.

Members of the Upper Sixth will be moving on from the Combined Cadet Force this year. They have all shown a huge amount of commitment to CCF over the years and have been an asset to the contingent. 

While leading in so many areas of school life, the upper sixth have alsobeen led, with grace, good humour and apparently indefatigable energy by the Big Four. Tara has shown patience and care in her role as Head of Boarding. Sisi as Senior Prefect has been a cheerful link with the Junior School, while Ciara as Deputy Head Girl and Catherine as Head Girl have been a delight to work with from my point of view. We thank you all for the tours and the speeches you have given, the meetings you have led and attended, for your willingness to take on so much and for the high standards that you have set for yourselves throughout. It has been a pleasure to work with you all.

The final weeks of the summer term have embodied so much of what is fine and special about St George’s. We have hosted a teacher from Germantown Friends’ School in Philadelphia, a school with whom we have an association that goes back more than 30 years. A number of girls here today will have taken part in that exchange or in one of the other international exchanges that are a remarkable feature of this school. Once term finishes, students will be flying off to Australia, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa to spend 5 or 6 weeks in a new school with their host families. The world may indeed be a much smaller place nowadays, but to immerse oneself in a new culture for that period of time, on one’s own, takes some considerable courage nonetheless.

In the course of this week we have witnessed excellence in performance both in sport and in music. On Sunday afternoon we were delighted by performances from the Jazz Band and Senior Choir; many of our leavers have been stalwarts of this ensemble, some of them from Primary 5, and their lively spirit will be much missed. We wish them all a most successful and enjoyable visit to Rome next week; I am sure they will take the city by storm. The soloists who sang and played on Monday evening gave us demonstrations not only of their talent but also of the years of dedicated practice which have led to the performances that moved us all. The A Cappella group has been a very special feature of this year group; their cohesion, concentration and commitment are wonderful to see. All of these girls have brought us so much pleasure through their music over the years; we thank them for that, and hope that music will continue to be a part of their lives in the future.

Wednesday saw our postponed Sports Day and on the evening before at Sports Celebration evening, we marked the achievements and contributions of our leavers, who have represented the school in so many sports over their years here. Sport at St George’s is about so much more than excellence in achievement though, although I am delighted to say that we see plenty of that. The 1st hockey team is going to look very different girls when you leave. It was heartening to see members of the 1st XI come along to support players from the 2nd and 3rd XI teams at the tournament last term, which the 2nd XI won in such an exciting fashion. I know that you have assisted with Primary 4 and 5 hockey clubs every week, some Primary 2 PE lessons, Remove swimming, Primary 6 orienteering and a few junior school classes. You have even run a very popular football club in Lower School this year.

The Senior Art Exhibition earlier this month was a breath-taking event. Skill, patience and breadth of creativity were in evidence at every turn and we were all proud of all of those whose work was displayed.

That our leavers have achieved so much in their time here, and will doubtless go on to achieve more in their adult lives, is in no small measure a tribute to their teachers. This term we say farewell to colleagues who have served this school for 209 years between them. Many of you girls here today will have been taught Music in the Junior School by Mrs Kathryn Coad who retires after 14 years of service to St George’s. Those of you who are Platinum Badge holders after today will I am sure remember Mrs Juliet Watson who leaves us after 16 years in the Nursery. Mrs Dorrie Baker has served this school for 17 years supporting three Heads and many Deputies in that time. The programmes that we have today are just one of her many achievements in the course of the year. Mrs Aileen Hesketh leaves us after 19 years teaching Physics, and latterly as Principal teacher of Physics. Mrs Jane Forbes retires after 24 years here, as teacher of English and more recently as Head of Careers. We wish her and her husband Graham, who has also given his time generously to the school, much happiness as they retire together. Mrs Viv Pickup retires after 26 years during which time she has been a class teacher in the Junior School and a member of the Learning Support Department.  Mrs Marjorie Hall, who will have meant so much to many of you as Head of Lower School retires after 32 years at St George’s.  We thank her for all she has given. Her husband Peter retires as Deputy Head from Merchiston Castle  School at the same time and we wish them both much happiness in the future. Miss Linda Emslie retires after no fewer than 35 years at St George’s in which time she has inspired and nurtured a love of music in generations of girls. Mrs Adrienne Armstrong, Senior Deputy Head, who has held many key roles at St George’s and has guided me gently and skilfully through my first two terms here, retires after 26 years here. We thank her for all that she has given to the school and wish her and David, who also retires at the end of his teaching career, a long and happy retirement together. We thank them all for their extraordinary service to this school and for the energy and passion for education which has characterised their careers here. I wish happiness and success in their future careers to the other staff who are leaving us this year: Mr Neil Docherty, Ms Kathryn Poole, Mrs Sylvia Hunt and Ms Laura-Marisa Ngangom.

Leavers of 2017, you are ready to leave. The achievements that I have referred to are only an outline – the publically visible face of what you do. Underlying this impressive array of activity is the hard work and personal growth that mean that you are now ready to take your places in the world. Through every event you have organised, every challenge undertaken, you have been learning and growing, earning your wings, to steal a metaphor. You are now ready to fly and we know that you will. We hope that you will take something of St George’s with you wherever you go; I am sure you will take your friendships, many of which will be with you for life. Take the determination that you have shown when things have been difficult, the sense of service which is so strong here, and the self-belief that you have built through taking up the opportunities that school offers. Take the kindness to others that we have all seen in you and Chaucer’s ‘trouthe’ that is your own integrity. We wish you all much happiness and success.

 Alex Hems
Head, St George's School for Girls  

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