25 May 2018

Alex Hems: Head's Blog May 25, 2018

A2.SMY AlexHems096 Crop 250wOn Thursday evening St George's hosted an information event about the new Graduate Apprenticeships which are now available at ten universities and colleges across Scotland. These are unique to Scotland and have been developed with employers to ensure that apprentices gain knowledge and skills appropriate to the workplace, while still working towards a degree. In the UK more widely, companies such as RBS, Virgin Media, BAE Systems and J.P. Morgan are offering highly rated apprenticeship schemes to school leavers.

Attending university remains, of course, the most appropriate route for many, but in the UK we have been slow to develop a valid alternative which focuses on training rather than on academia, and I mean by that training at a high level that is demanding, well thought-through and industry-relevant. When I worked in Switzerland in the early 1990s I watched 14 year olds waiting, with excitement and real eagerness, to hear whether or not they had gained a place on the highly competitive apprenticeship routes of their choice. They were, many of them, children who might otherwise quickly have become demotivated by school, but instead, through spending time with a reputable, 'big name' employer for part of every week, their school work took on a greater relevance for them as it visibly formed part of their pathway to employment.

Interviewed in The Times on Thursday, Euan Blair, founder of WhiteHat, who describe themselves as a talent accelerator, speaks of his hope that in the future we will ask not, 'Where did you study?' but 'Where did you train?' I suspect that shift in attitudes could be a while away, but, as potential students become more and more aware of seeking value for money in their degree courses, I very much hope that talented young people will take these opportunities seriously. If you are on the right course for you then university can be inspiring and life-changing in all the best ways, and for some careers and professions of course it is still essential. For me, it was certainly a very special time; I was fortunate to be taught by some of the best known figures in literary research during my three years of traditional academic study. It was also a time to grow up, and gave me friends who are still dear to me now. But I am acutely conscious that for me, in the late 1980s it was largely a state-funded experience and I was able to leave without the burden of debt that is now such a significant part of the lives of today's graduates. I am also conscious of the needs of employers and of our commitment as a school to ensuring that our students are well prepared for their lives beyond here. 

Our approach at St George's has always been to advise and guide every girl to find the most appropriate route for her. We encourage everyone to set their sights high. University preparation groups start in Upper 5 for those who are interested. Specialist teaching for entrance tests and interviews runs in the Lower 6. Girls enter university essay competitions and Olympiads in a variety of disciplines. In our Upper 6 year there are probably no two girls who have chosen exactly the same courses from the available combinations of Advanced Highers, Highers and A Levels.  I am delighted that this raft of new possibilities has opened up, which recognises that bright and ambitious young people can have an appetite for practical, applied learning as well as the more traditional, purely academic approach which I enjoyed. I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we will hear in Speech Days to come of girls who are embarking on Graduate Apprenticeships and other highly rated training courses, alongside those aspiring to study at university in the UK or across the world as they currently do.

I wish you all an enjoyable break with your daughters over half term.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

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