Speech for Old Girls’ Lunch 17th June 2017

Alex Hems for websiteWelcome to all of you; it is a great pleasure to see you here and to see how much you are enjoying meeting up with one another again here at St George’s. Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today; it is wonderful for me to have this opportunity to talk to you, to meet you and to let you know about the direction of the school at the moment.

It may be relevant to give you some background on me. I was educated at a school very similar to this one, St Helen’s in Northwood, on the north west borders of London and Hertfordshire. St Helen’s is a through school, like this one, and in my day at least boasted a very healthy boarding community for girls aged 8 upwards. While the school has grown and continues to thrive, boarding has closed there now which tells us something about the changes in the independent school world over the last few years.  I was at St Helen’s from age 8 to 18, and it was there, blessed with excellent teachers, that I developed what has been a life-long love of literature and history, and awe of those who play lacrosse so much better than I ever could. I went from there to Somerville College, Oxford where I read English. Somerville was, in those days, a women’s college although that that has changed now, so you will see that my experience and advocacy of single sex education go back a long way. I took my PGCE at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge and went into teaching, which had always been my ambition. I taught for three years in a co-ed school before moving to St Paul’s Girls’ School for 7 years, then on to North London Collegiate where I was Head of Sixth Form. After having my family, I am the mother of two daughters, I returned to St Paul’s to take up the post of Head of Senior School or 6th form there. After a spell as a Deputy Head at Francis Holland Sloane Square I moved out to Wycombe Abbey, where latterly I oversaw the pastoral and boarding side of life in a busy, full boarding school for 600 girls aged 11-18.

I feel very honoured to have the chance to lead a school such as St George’s, where the values of providing opportunities and educational excellence for girls and young women, which I hold dear, are at the heart of the school’s foundation. The women who established St George’s were courageous visionaries who forged a route into Higher Education for girls here in Edinburgh. The girls of today are fortunate in that they no longer need to fight for their right to a university education. It was very interesting, however, to read the responses from the OG community who replied to our survey about how many of you had experienced any kind of gender discrimination in the course of your careers. Clearly there is still much work to be done in this area. In the course of this session some of our girls, in Lower 4 have been working with Marjorie Hall, inspired by the Dads 4 daughters campaign which aims to involve the significant men in girls’ lives in considering unconscious bias in their own workplaces. Marje’s team of girls enjoyed interviewing a number of people including our own Chairman of Governors about this and were inspired to make a film about their findings. We emphasise repeatedly to girls that the career paths they follow may look very different to those of their parents. As some of you will have found, they will probably move around between sectors much more than has been the case hitherto, making a willingness to be flexible an essential attribute. One aspect of St George's which appealed to me from the start was its emphasis on the international outlook. It seems to me that one of our greatest responsibilities to our girls is to prepare them to take their places in the adult world as responsible, independent and productive citizens. We all know that the world of work in increasingly competitive. Excellent qualifications are of course essential but employers also want to see flexibility, the ability to work successfully in a team, creativity and resilience. I would add to that list the capacity to see oneself as part of an international workforce. I believe that young people will be competing for jobs with talented youngsters from across the globe and will need to be prepared to move around to find opportunities. Companies expect their employees to be willing to transfer between cities and continents and those who embrace this way of working will be the most successful.

There is an excellent programme of careers education already in place at St George's but we need to be imaginative and innovative as well if we are to prepare the girls for a future which will look very different from the working world that we have known. We encourage them to think imaginatively when choosing their university courses so that they equip themselves with the training and skills that will best prepare them for the new career paths, for example in high tech creative and design industries.
It has been suggested that the young people of today will move between careers much more frequently than was the case in the past. Many of you will have seen in your own workplaces or amongst your contemporaries that changes of direction, periods of unemployment and a willingness to take on new roles within an organisation are all part of working life. Resilience and determination in the face of disappointment are important attributes for all of us. I know that former pupils come back to school to talk to girls about their work and the routes they have taken. I very much hope that is a relationship that we can develop further. I hope that we can also make the St George’s of today relevant to those who have already left who are still making their way and getting themselves established in their own careers. Women are excellent at building networks of friends and sustaining those friendships; dare I suggest that this is something we are perhaps better at than men, but we are not always so effective at building professional networks, possibly because there are simply fewer of us in certain fields, perhaps because so many of us are also busy juggling the demands of our families as well as our careers. Girls’ schools can help to fill that gap, however, providing a forum for alumnae to support one another in their careers. I have been fortunate this term to be able to appoint a new colleague who will be joining us with a view to developing our alumnae network, working with you to create opportunities, both social and professional for you to meet, and also developing the role that the school’s former pupils play in relation to our current pupils, and helping them to understand the changing workplace and the opportunities that are available to them. I hope that you will enjoy meeting Laura when she joins us next term; I am sure she will be in contact soon.

St George’s prides itself on the range of opportunities that we are able to offer to the girls here; we want them to have the chance to grow as individuals, who have an understanding of their own strengths and abilities that springs from having taken on new experiences and challenges. I was delighted to find both the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and a CCF unit flourishing when I arrived here. The Model United Nations Society gives girls the chance to compete against teams from across Edinburgh and beyond, researching and representing the interests of diverse countries and learning to speak in a formal and public setting with confidence. The Youth Philanthropy Initiative brings Lower 5 girls into contact with small charities in the local area, learning about their work and the people they support. The international exchanges encourage open-mindedness, resilience and cultural awareness. I am so proud of our successes in sport this year, in debating, in national competitions such as the Shine media awards for school magazines, and in academic competitions such as the mathematics and science Olympiads which the girls enter. I am grateful to my colleagues whose support and encouragement is invaluable in making this happen here. This week alone we have heard two concerts, one for Lower School and one for Upper School, and been treated to a magnificent art exhibition. I have also had the great pleasure of meeting each of the Lower 5 girls for an individual 10 minute interview in the last few weeks. Hearing about their plans for the future, which range from robotics engineer to professional ballet dancer has been uplifting and reminds me how important it is that we continue to offer this range of opportunity because this is the platform that gives them the confidence to become the active, engaged and fulfilled adults that we would wish them to be.

I am committed to continuing to offer excellence in education, in its fullest sense, to girls in Edinburgh and beyond. You will I am sure be aware of the growing issue of affordability in independent education now. I was fortunate to have benefited from attending an independent girls’ school, and I know that my parents made great sacrifices to make that possible but I am not convinced that if they were starting out today, they would have been able to contemplate fee levels as they currently stand. The economic climate since 2008 has certainly affected the capacity to pay of many families who might previously have chosen independent education for their children. This of course is particularly true of boarding, which I know can be such a wonderful experience but is now out of reach for many of those who experienced it themselves and would love to be able to offer the same to their children.  We are in a competitive market place, and schools need to be aware and responsive, thinking ahead, creating opportunities and anticipating change. I see myself as a very privileged custodian of a tradition of excellence. If we are to continue to meet the needs of this generation and those who will come after them, those of us who care about the fine work that schools like St George’s do need to keep more than half an eye on the future as well as preserving the finest traditions of the past.

My mission here is to give the young women of today, and for years to come, the start in life that we who sit here today have all enjoyed. We aim to send girls out into the world with the academic credentials that reflect the very best of their abilities and with a strong sense of the values of this school which, if held to, will make them not only successful but also happy and thoroughly decent people.

Alex Hems
Head, St George's School for Girls