Open Morning Speech 2019
Welcome to St George's. I am Alex Hems, and I have the great privilege of leading this school. A word about my background: before coming here nearly three years ago I was Deputy Head in charge of pastoral and boarding life in a large, full boarding school for girls in the south east of England. Before that I was a Deputy Head in a smaller, through school in London and was Head of Sixth Form at both St Paul’s Girls’ School and North London Collegiate School. I have spent my career almost entirely in girls’ schools, and as the mother of two daughters aged 12 and 13, I am fairly well steeped in girls’ education. My own schooling took place at a school very similar to St George’s, and I read English at Oxford before taking my teaching qualification at Cambridge.
You are here today because you are trying to make a really important decision for your daughter. Some of you may be 100 % committed to the idea of an all-girls school, and some may be quite sceptical. I would say that there are excellent girls’ schools and excellent co-ed schools, just as there are also mediocre examples of both.
While every family and every child is different, I believe that as parents there are a few things that we all want for our children in a school:
We want to know that they will have the chance to be the best version of themselves that they can be – and that means that they will be confident learners, encouraged to be curious, stretched and challenged to do their very best by a well-planned curriculum and committed, passionate teachers, and enabled to respond positively when work becomes harder, by people who care about them as individuals. We want them to recognise excellence but also to know how to manage when they cannot achieve it at a given time.
We want them to experience opportunities, perhaps those that we did not have ourselves, and to learn to appreciate their own potential.
We want to know that the values of the school accord with our own.
We want to them to move on from school to positive destinations, equipped to adapt to the demands of adult life and to have a fulfilling and successful career.
As the parents of girls, we want our daughters to thrive and be confident in a world that still sometimes places far too much emphasis on what they look like. At St George’s we feel deeply that being an all-girls school enables us to offer something very special. Being at a girls’ school is certainly not a matter of being protected from boys, nor does it mean being in a hot-house exam factory.
It is about knowing that all the opportunities here are for girls – whether that is restoring our Triumph Spitfire Sports Car, joining the Young Engineers, representing the school in Debating or Model United Nations, hockey, netball, swimming, cross country running, cricket, athletics, badminton, tennis or horse-riding, taking part in a play or being in an orchestra or musical ensemble. At a girls’ school you can be confident that all of these opportunities are for girls.
Being at a girls’ school is about knowing that you can leave gender-stereotypes at the gate. In the words of so many students when I have asked them what is special about being here – it is about being able to be yourself.
It is about having strong female role-models and leadership opportunities – showing girls the way so that when they leave here they go into the world quietly confident in themselves and their capacity to be the person they want to be, and that, surely is one of the finest gifts that any school experience can give.
In any good school you would expect to find inspiring teaching, a vibrant co-curricular programme of sport, drama, music, debating etc, maybe some exciting trips abroad and strong careers advice to help students as they prepare to leave the school. Any school worth its salt will aim to get the best out of every child, and you will find all that here. I am not going to list all our clubs and societies for you, but as you go around today please ask your guides about the activities that they are involved in and the opportunities that they have. There are some aspects of a St George’s experience that I believe are unique and I am just going to give you a bit of detail on those:
Curriculum and learning
Here at St George’s we deliver a blend of English and Scottish that we call Best of British. When we were established, just over 130 years ago, it was with the intention of educating young women to gain entry to university, then of course barely thought of. The expectation of high academic standards remains at our core. Nearly half of the girls in our current S6 year have 5 or more A grades at Higher and 59% of our Advanced higher grades are As. For those more familiar with A levels, an A at Advanced Higher is equivalent to an A* at A level because of the additional stretch and the emphasis on independent learning that is built into the Advanced Higher.
We are proud of our through-school curriculum and the challenging, creative journey that our girls will go on from Nursery, through Junior school, Lower School and then on into Upper School. As a through-school our very youngest pupils enjoy specialist teaching in Physical Education, Music, Art, Drama and Languages and have access to all the facilities of a secondary school, while having their own quiet, specially designed space and outdoor classroom in the Fantastical Forest.
At the end of Primary 5 girls leave Junior School to move to our very special Lower School – a school within a school with its own library, science labs, hall and beautiful grounds. In Primary 7 we start secondary education - a year earlier than in most other Scottish schools - so our girls in Primary 7 have separate, specialist teachers from the Upper School for all their subjects and start to take responsibility for themselves by moving from room to room for lessons. By the time they move into S1, or Lower 4 as it is known here, they are old hands at organising themselves and are ready to take on the positions of responsibility that come with being the oldest year in Lower School. In Remove/ Primary 7, girls will experience our language carousel: blocks of teaching in German, Mandarin Chinese, either French or Spanish depending on which language they have already started in Primary 5, and Classical Civilisation, to complement their learning of Latin. In Lower 4, they will have double periods every week of discrete sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. When they move into Upper School at the start of S2, they are already familiar with many of the teachers as they have seen them in their classrooms for the last two years in Lower School. Over the three years in Lower School we also run a carefully planned outdoor education programme, taking the girls through challenges and personal development while away, from which they return with a new confidence and respect for themselves and their peers. They come off the bus at the end of the week tired, slightly grubby, very happy and definitely walking taller.
Here at St George’s students follow two-year GCSE courses, leading to examination at age 16, at the end of S4. Most girls will take 9 subjects, including English Literature and English Language, giving them the benefit of both breadth and depth of study. Alongside these courses we offer an option to take the Higher Project Qualification, or HPQ, an independent but supported research project which allow students to develop a personal academic interest or perhaps work across more than one discipline to undertake their research. We are now in the second year of this course, and the first group of students are completing their projects. Topics, which have been chosen completely independently, range from the impact of pesticides on farm bird populations to the origins and development of the Korean script. This broad but rigorous programme provides an excellent foundation for their Higher courses in S5, or Lower Sixth. The majority will take 5 Highers, and with those under their belts, will move on to a final year of Advanced Highers, more Highers or a combination of both. We help every girl to find the combination of courses that is right for her and that will give her the springboard that she needs into her chosen route after St George’s.
One of the best indicators of academic success in a school is the destinations of its leavers. At St George’s we are preparing girls to step out into their futures, into careers and courses as diverse as medicine, law, computer game design, engineering, architecture, teaching, astrophysics, business, accountancy, languages and English. 91% of last year’s leavers went on to their first choice destination, taking their first steps into adult life at institutions which included Cambridge, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, London, Paris School of Art, Aberdeen, Glasgow, St Andrews and many more.
Opportunity and Leadership
We know that the working world of the future might look quite different from that which many of us have known. We cannot predict exactly what that will mean for the students of today, but employers are clear that what they want to see is creativity, flexibility and the ability to collaborate. We aim to cultivate these attributes in all our girls, at every stage in their school career and with over 40 clubs and societies running throughout the year there is no shortage for them to choose from. Next weekend over 200 young people from England and Scotland will be here for the St George’s Model United Nations Conference. This event will be led by our senior girls, but it is also a great opportunity for younger ones to get involved as well and they will be acting as runners throughout the weekend – learning and soaking up the atmosphere. Many of you will have experienced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. I am so proud of the fact that not only do nearly all of our S3 year group opt to do the Bronze award, but every year between 25 and 30 girls complete their Gold awards while still here with us at school. Young Enterprise, debating, Combined Cadet Force or the Five Pounds Challenge for Primary 6, productions and concerts for all ages, all help to develop communication, teamwork and planning. In all of these areas of our school life, the leaders and role-models are all girls. The message is Yes She Can at every turn.
We set great value on developing leadership capacity at St George’s. In the Junior School we have House Captains in Primary 5 for each of our six Houses, and this is replicated in Lower School, where we also have a Head Girl and Deputy who are in S1. Other students can take on ‘Champion’ roles, leading in charity work, student voice, sport or eco projects for example. Girls in Upper Sixth, 6th year, all have opportunities to take on roles within the school, as form prefects for younger classes, as House Captains, Sports Prefect, leading groups such as our International Committee, or promoting Wellbeing and Learning and Teaching. And then of course there is the Head of School, with her team of Deputy Head Girl, Senior Prefect and Head of Boarding. Whether it's writing for or editing our magazine Independent Women, debating, developing a piece of student-led drama or speaking up at the whole school Student Council, there are plenty of opportunities for developing one's own voice and identity.
As an all girls' school of course, all these positions of responsibility will be held by girls. All the role models amongst the student community here are female, and we can focus on presenting the girls with strong female role-models in the wider world, such as the NASA roboticist, one of the top 20 female scientists in the world who has spent time with our girls, or the sportswomen, lawyers, doctors etc who visit the school and share their experiences with the girls every week. Our students can leave behind gendered stereotypes and an overly sexualised world at the school gate and devote themselves to the business of learning and having fun without the inhibitions that a mixed learning environment can create.
An all girls’ school does not have to mean that this is an all-girls’ life of course. We have a strong connection with Merchiston Castle School, with whom we have a joint Combined Cadet Force and a busy programme of socials with the boys throughout the year. Girls from St George’s are currently rehearsing in their production of A Christmas Carol, and their boys are joining us for rehearsals for our Upper School play, Little Women, and we work closely with them on university preparation as well.
I want to say a word about sport and Physical Education here at St George’s because I do believe our approach is special here. Healthy lifelong habits are essential, and our ethos here, which is very much to focus on participation, develops confidence first and foremost. That said, we certainly see high level performance, with students from St George’s competing not only at District level but also in National teams. Not only will we regularly put out 4 teams per year group at Primary 6, Remove (Primary 7) and S1, but, at an age when many girls are self-conscious about putting on leggings and getting a bit sweaty, our oldest students are still taking part in sport and PE on a weekly basis. If we can find another school who will do the same, we can put out not just 1st, 2nd and 3rd teams at senior level, but 4th and 5th too because so many still see sport as a key part of their lives. A the other end of the school I love to hear the sounds of girls playing outside in the grounds in Lower and Junior School, and letting themselves be children for that little bit longer.
Individual Attention and Flexibility
This is about the size and shape of the school. While large enough to have a thriving 6th form and to be able to offer over 20 courses at Higher and Advanced Higher, we are small enough that we can really know every girl well. Every girl who is making choices for GCSE, Higher or Advanced Higher will have a one-to-one meeting with a senior member of staff to discuss her options. This can be followed by as many conversations as necessary with the girl and her parents until all concerned are comfortable with the choices being made. As Head I will meet individually with every girl in the summer term of S3 (Lower 5) to discuss progress with GCSE courses and her plans for the future. I then meet with the girls again when they are making their applications for Higher Education, to talk about their aspirations, what has led them to this point and the preparations that they are making to support their applications. Next term I am looking forward to having lunch with the Primary 5 girls to get to know them better as well.
Throughout the year girls will also have individual meetings with their tutors in order to talk about progress and to review and set targets.
When our students make their subject choices for GCSE, Higher and Advanced Higher we give them careful guidance, but they are not faced with grids and columns which restrict their choices. Instead we will aim to design the timetable around their choices. The curriculum can be tailored to meet individual needs when appropriate.
A St George’s education is a preparation for a future, one that could take your daughters across the globe as their careers develop. Fostering the understanding of the global workplace is deeply embedded here. Our extensive programme of exchanges, with the USA, Canada, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, offers our students the opportunity to learn about other cultures from the inside, and our community in turn is enriched by their exchange partners when they come over here to spend between three and five weeks with us. Not everyone may feel comfortable setting off on an exchange, however, so from Junior School upwards we also run digital exchanges with countries across the world, based around areas of study that we have in common.
We have just been awarded a two year grant to run an Erasmus + programme entitled Community and Culture. It seems that never before have these words, in an international context, felt more relevant. Over the next two years girls currently in S2 (Upper 4) will work collaboratively with students in Austria and Italy on this project, with all having the chance to visit each other’s schools and learn more about what community and culture mean for them.
We are also a boarding school. Our boarding house, Houldsworth, brings a much valued international dimension into the heart of school life, and also offers a home from home experience to many Scottish girls who live just that bit too far away to make the journey back every day.
We offer weekly, flexi and full boarding. This flexibility can offer significant advantages for working families, who know that their daughters are well looked after and happy in Houldsworth while they travel or work long hours during the week, before coming back together as a family at the weekends. For those living further afield boarding provides a full programme of weekend activities and a well-structured and supported working environment, with all the advantages of Edinburgh life on the doorstep. Living in the purpose built Bungalow, the Sixth Boarders experience the perfect stepping stone to university life. Please do take the opportunity to go over there today, to meet Mrs Allison our Housemistress, who lives there with her family, including her gorgeous dog Delphie.
A Network for Life
If you come to St George’s you can also become part of our network for life, Network St G’s. I believe that it is essential that women support one another in their careers, as men have traditionally been very good at doing. Network St G’s enables students past and present to make contact with each other, to learn about a new career path, to offer mentoring, or perhaps for advice about a change of direction or returning to work after a break.
This is an all-round education, brimming with opportunity to enable every girl to find something that is special for her, which we hope will remain with her, perhaps lighting the spark that will become a life-long passion. We believe that being a girls’ school is at the heart of what makes St George’s a great school.
What you will see today will give you a flavour of St George’s, but we hope you will come back for an individual visit on a week day, when you will see the school in action and have a longer tour.