Alex Hems, Head of St George’s, Open Morning Speech October 2018
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 two 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 11 and 12, 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.
St George’s Celebrates 130th Birthday
This year at St George’s we are celebrating our 130th Birthday, and only this week, on Founders’ Day the whole community came together to mark the occasion by taking part in a series of thought-provoking, creative activities. In Junior School the gallery of girls’ portraits of the women who inspire them tells its own story. In Upper School we posed the question: if we were starting from scratch what sort of school would we build? Led by geographers, historians, philosophers and economists the girls grappled with questions of location, finance, curriculum, management structures and ethos. We saw creativity in the collage installation, inspired by David Hockney and put together by members of Upper 4 from images of parts of the school that they had captured throughout the day. We look forward to seeing the film that our girls made of the day very soon. Over the course of this year, we are celebrating the commitment of our founders to educational excellence for girls and reflecting on ways in which the same energy and determination that led to the establishment of this school can be taken forward into our century.
Why all girls?
I am often asked the question ‘Why all girls?’ or ‘What makes girls’ schools special?’ These may be questions that are in your minds today. I believe that there are excellent girls schools and excellent co-ed schools just as there are also mediocre examples of both. Most importantly there is the question of finding the school that feels right for you and your daughter. This morning I would like to tell you what I think are the key elements about an education at St George’s that make this such a special place:
There is our curriculum – a blend of English and Scottish that we call Best of British; our size – we are small enough to enable everyone to be well known, and to allow us to work flexibly to meet the needs of every girl, but large enough to be able to offer over 20 subjects at Higher and Advanced Higher; being an all-through school, in spirit, not just in name, with the unique Lower School experience which is so important here; the opportunities for leadership for every girl; the YES SHE CAN approach, embodied in the abundance of strong female role-models and the range of opportunity which should inspire every girl to find the path that is right for her as she looks ahead to life beyond St George’s.
Our curriculum: When we were established, 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. As a through-school, a career at St George’s is a journey – starting from Nursery and Junior School where 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. They then move over to the Lansdowne campus, where we house Primary 6 and 7, and S1, in our Lower School. At St George’s we start secondary education earlier than other schools in Scotland, so girls in Primary 7, known here as Remove, 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, 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.
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 gain nine GCSEs, 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 allows students to develop a personal academic interest or perhaps work across more than one discipline to undertake their research. 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. This combination of qualifications is fully recognised by universities across the UK and indeed the world – this year we have former students starting at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Toronto, London, Utrecht, Aberdeen, Glasgow, St Andrews and many more. Please do have a look at the lists that are on display around school for more information on our leavers’ destinations.
Leadership: We set great value on developing leadership potential at St George’s. In the Junior School we have House Captains in Primary 5 for each of our 6 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 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, or leading groups such as our International Committee. This year we have our first Learning and Teaching Prefect and Wellbeing Prefect, who work closely with my Deputy Heads. 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 POW WOW, the whole school Student Council, there are plenty of opportunities for developing one's own voice and identity. As a departure from the norm, as part of our birthday celebrations, we are having an all-female production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest this term, and I am delighted that on the St George’s stage girls are having the chance to play not just Miranda and Ariel, but Prospero and Caliban too.
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 will be spending time with us on Monday, 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. In the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award no-one will be told here that the group is full and she will have to do something else. We have sector leading levels of completion at Gold level and I firmly believe that this is to do with being an all-girls school too. The same is true of participation in sport here. Not only will we regularly put out 4 teams per year group at Primary 6, Remove and S1, but, at an age when many girls are self-conscious about putting on leggings and getting a bit sweaty, our girls are still taking part in hockey, netball, tennis, yoga, athletics, swimming, badminton, fencing, running and squash. 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. When I sit in my Lower School office it is lovely to hear the sounds of girls playing outside in the grounds, and letting themselves be children for that little bit longer. 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 Beauty and the Beast, and we hope to be working closely with them on university preparation as well.
Size of school and structure
Our Size: Although not a large school by Edinburgh standards, at the upper end we have a large and thriving Sixth Form, but we are still small enough that we can design our timetables around the girls’ choices rather than insisting that they choose from a fixed grid of courses. Every girl here can be well known, by her teachers and by her peers. We believe that everyone benefits from high expectations, but we are certainly not a hot-house. Classes are small. Our knowledge of the girls and excellent communication across the school lie at the heart of our pastoral care, which again is based on responding to every girl as an individual, and working in partnership with you as parents to ensure the best outcomes for each child here. As a through-school our care of the girls benefits from excellent communication and continuity at every stage and we can ensure that transitions are as smooth as possible.
Opportunity: At St George’s we are preparing girls to step out into their futures, into careers as diverse as medicine, law, computer game design, engineering, architecture, teaching, astrophysics and neuroscience. 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. Activities like the Model United Nations group, Young Enterprise, debating, Combined Cadet Force and Duke Of Edinburgh’s Award in the Upper School, or the Five Pounds Challenge for Primary 6s, 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. Self-belief and the confidence that our girls will carry into their later lives grow from challenging themselves to go beyond what is safe and familiar, from testing themselves against new experiences and from overcoming their fear of failure.
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. From Junior School upwards we also run digital exchanges with countries across the world, based around curriculum areas that we have in common. Our boarding house brings a much valued international dimension into the heart of school life, and also offers a home from home experience to many British girls who live just that bit too far away to make the journey back every day.
Network for life
A St George’s education is an all-round education, brimming with opportunity for every girl. A St George’s girl also becomes part of a network for life, which we call Network St G’s. You will find more information in the Upper School Hall about our work to enable our former pupils to remain connected with the school and to support one another as their careers develop.
We believe that being a girls’ school is the key to what makes St George’s a great school; I hope you will agree.
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. We have increased the number of bus routes, offering transport to and from school from across points Edinburgh, from East and West Lothian and from Inverkeithing.
Our Primary 6, Remove and S1 entrance assessments take place in January; assessment for entry into S2, or Upper 4 at age 13, takes place in November. I know that the Admissions team will be happy to help you.
Mrs Alex Hems