When I began to reminisce on this blog, I had no clear plan about what I would include. There was so much I could have said about the schools, and the major changes in education over my career, but I did not set out to write my memoirs, and that has not changed!
As I have been sharing memories, other special moments have come to mind. Each month, I’ll add a new snippet below, which may stir your memories.
The Antiques No-show With the help of Dunedin Antiques, the School held an antiques valuation fundraising evening, which attracted a very large crowd. As a member of staff, I decided to join in by bringing along a very old chair for consideration, and I was delighted when I saw that it was one of 15 items selected for display on the stage.
As the expert went through the other 14 pieces, it appeared to me that the valuation estimates were increasing each time, so surely my chair, the very last item was something very special (and very valuable). However, my hopes were soon dashed, as the expert began to speak. He cautioned people not to get carried away by something very old because usually it was one of many copies, and not worth much more than firewood. My chair apparently was a perfect example!
A visit from Richard Branson On a rare visit to Scotland, Richard Branson spent over an hour chatting with children of all ages who encountered the same kinds of dyslexic challenges he had faced. He told them they were fortunate to be in school at a time when their challenges were recognised and addressed. In his day as a boarder at Stowe, he had been seen as a problem, so he had rebelled, and was eventually asked to leave. However, he was delighted to tell us that his headmaster had recognised his entrepreneurial talents, he predicted that the then 15-year-old Richard would either end up as a millionaire or in jail. Richard laughingly told us he had been proved correct on both fronts! We felt very privileged that someone with as little time as Richard Branson had spent an hour in our Junior School. The children who shared the time with him were both mesmerised and inspired.
I cannot remember why I thought that November 2006 was the perfect time to tell the world that our Junior School children learned to write with a fountain pen in Primary 6, and that each child owned their own pen. Perhaps it was linked to the recent implementation of our nine school values, which were based on our long-held realisation that children respond very well to high standards and expectations. Learning to write with a fountain pen is a challenge, which few children are given the chance to master, but to us the skill exemplified high standards and allowed children to show their commitment by having to work hard to master a new skill.
The real trigger was in fact the Sunday Times Letters section, which had recently printed a few fountain pen: for or against letters. It had people debating whether writing in this manner was a skill for life, or unnecessary in the computer age. I contacted the Sunday Times and suggesting that they might like to send a reporter to a school where children continued to be taught to write with a fountain pen. When the Education Correspondent arrived, he chatted with a few children and with me, a photograph of a boy practising his hand-writing skills was taken and that was it. I had hoped for a few lines in the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times, which would be good PR for the school. Instead, I was amazed to find the story almost filling a page in the national edition with quotes from all sorts of experts, as well as excellent coverage of the reporter’s visit to the school. I was pleased and again assumed that was that.
Little did I know that within 24 hours I would be interviewed twice on BBC 5 Live, on an early news programme and later by Peter Allan on Drivetime. I was soon being interviewed on various local radio stations and I also spoke with Jeremy Vine at lunchtime on Radio 2. Very quickly the story was syndicated widely in different newspapers and suddenly we went viral, not that I had any idea what that meant at the time!
Social media posts went round the world, bloggers began to write about the story and, believe it or not, within a couple of weeks a Google search of my name and the word ‘fountain-pens’ came up with more than 10 million results. I have just tried the same now 14 years after the event and it still indicates 3,390,300 including links to the New York Herald Tribune, The Denver Post and the Daily Telegraph. I was offered an all-expenses lecture tour in the US (which I did not take up!), interviewed for radio programmes in France, Italy, the US and Russia and was particularly surprised when one of our school families returned from a Christmas holiday in Italy to tell me that the Christmas Day National TV Quiz included a question about our fountain pens! Years later the story was again featured on television, this time on the BBC’s The One Show.
The most amusing incident that came out of the story was a phone call from an executive at the headquarters of Parker Pens. He told me that following the splash in the Sunday Times (and the subsequent international coverage) he’d been contacted by two of their outlets in Edinburgh to say they had run out of fountain pens! As a gesture of their gratitude for the publicity, they said they would like to give every child in Primary 6 and 7 a free fountain pen, before asking me how many we would need. When I said four hundred, they were taken aback, but after discussing the numbers with their bosses, they said they would courier 450 to us.
True to their word, a pallet of pens was delivered. However, on further inspection we found they’d sent us 450 packs of six pens, so 2700 pens each with a retail value of £9.99! I phoned the company and asked if they might have made a mistake! There was a long silence followed by an ‘Oh no!’ before I was put on hold. A senior executive came to the phone and said we should just keep them all as it would be too difficult to have them collected and brought back to their factory in the south of England. We decided to give a pen to every ESMS family and the rest were issued free to children joining Primary 6 for as long as stocks lasted!
The children at ESMS Junior School today use a combination of fountain pens and roller balls, but I am delighted to report that good handwriting continues to be a priority.
I had the pleasure of attending dozens of Junior School camps, all great fun and hard work, in locations from Aviemore to Hexham. A huge amount of work went into their organisation, and I was always very grateful to all my colleagues who worked so hard before, during and after the days we spent away from home.
I will only mention the most unusual one I ever attended: the Primary 7 camp of 2001. It was scheduled, as was usual at the time, to be based in the Youth Hostel of Ambleside. However, a few weeks before we were due to travel, the whole of the Lake District was closed to visitors because of a sudden and very significant outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
We had a problem! Determined not to let the children down, I began somewhat randomly phoning hotels in Scotland with the capacity to host a very large party. I eventually persuaded Crieff Hydro to take all 208 children and 40 staff at youth hostel rates! A result!
I drove to Crieff to meet with the manager, who told me that everyone was looking forward to our visit. He’d even consulted his long-term guests, as he thought they deserved to know that the hotel would be very much busier than usual for a few days in May. He insisted that his staff would treat the children as ‘proper’ guests, which would start as soon as we arrived. He assured me his colleagues would be delighted to organise the sorting out of luggage, after it was taken off the six coaches. He would not listen to my suggestion that we would be happy to help – we were, he emphasised, guests as well and deserved to relax.
The luggage was removed from the coaches, and we all stood around a large pile of suitcases, expectantly! One man with a clipboard asked for silence from 208 excited children, all crammed in the main lobby. He read out the names of the children allocated to the first room. That was okay, until he asked them to identify their bags, so he could give them a room key. It took him a few minutes to work out that identifying four bags from 208 very similar bags, in a very crowded lobby, was not going to be straightforward, especially with the other 204 children becoming a bit restless. He moved on to the second and third rooms with similar results, not helped when one of the first group returned to say the key wasn’t working! Eventually, the poor man gave in, and asked us to organise the luggage and the keys.
Later, when we sat down for our first meal, I suggested that my colleagues would be happy to pour the juice for the children if the restaurant manager arranged for large jugs to be provided. He again said he would prefer the children to be ‘proper’ guests and told us that his waiters would serve the children from their normal small jugs. After about 10 minutes he realised that it would take the rest of the evening to get round all the children (before even thinking about refills), so once again we were asked to rescue the situation.
The week turned out to be a huge success, and I knew we had been accepted by the other guests (who must have wondered what they were in for when 250 of us arrived in six coaches) when I watched some of the children dancing with elderly residents at an afternoon tea dance! It was a great experience, although I was slightly surprised that a small number of the children seemed disappointed to be spending the week in a hotel they seemed to know very well, when they would rather have been in a youth hostel!
The story of the Primary 6 Pentland Hills expedition which I finished with in the June Newsletter, took place on a wet and windy day and I was very impressed by how well the children coped, many of them walking for over 10 hours. As a direct result, I decided to challenge the Primary 7 children to a much longer walk, for which they could raise sponsorship money for charity.
In 2014 I planned a two-day walk along the Forth and Clyde Canal from The Kelpies to Bowling near Dumbarton, a total of 41 miles over two days with an overnight hotel stop. Over 70 children applied for places and all were interviewed in groups as part of the recruitment process – they explained their motivation, told me how they would train to make sure they were fit enough to cope and what they thought they would bring to the group. It was very difficult to decide who should be offered places, however, as it was important to limit the numbers, 12 girls and 12 boys were eventually selected. They began to train with the help of their families and at the same time they started raising sponsorship money.
Eventually the big day arrived, we were transported by minibus to The Kelpies and started to walk. Several bemused passers-by on the canal towpath suggested we were mad to expect young children to walk 41 miles. Of course they all managed and, although there were moments when individual children ‘hit the wall’, their own determination and the support of their friends got them through and by the time we reached the Firth of Clyde in a downpour, most of them were happily running and splashing. They were very proud of themselves and I was very proud of them, as were their teachers who volunteered to join me by walking with them. Particular thanks should go to Mairi Grant and Mark Anderson as they enjoyed themselves so much that they continued to volunteer as the walks became longer!
Having decided that 41 miles was not too much of a challenge I next planned a two-day 49 mile walk in 2015 from Torness Power Station, east of Dunbar, to Musselburgh along the John Muir Way. Once again 24 children successfully completed this longer challenge which included an overnight stay in the lodges attached to Craigielaw Golf Club at Aberlady. The weather was kind to us on the first day but after a good night’s sleep we were faced with a 25-mile struggle directly into a gale as we resumed our walk at North Berwick. The path seemed to go on forever but the children were great, albeit a few who needed some extra encouragement from their friends when we reached the outskirts of Musselburgh, soon realising we still had almost 4 miles to go circumnavigating the seemingly endless perimeter of the Racecourse! We were all exhausted from the buffeting we had received all day from the wind by the time we met up with the children’s parents for a celebratory meal. Once again, the children excelled themselves by the huge amount they had raised for charity.
Having announced that I would be retiring from my post as Vice Principal and Headmaster of the Junior School at the end of the 2015/16 session, I decided that I would like to finish on a high with an even longer walk which would combine physical challenge with the opportunity for children to show in a practical way that they understood and embodied our nine school values. Our first two long-distance walks had proven very challenging but ultimately extremely rewarding and unforgettable so, given that I would be reaching my 66th birthday in the year I was retiring, I wondered about a Route 66 expedition! Realising that an 800-mile walk along an American highway was not really a practical proposition, I consulted Google and discovered that walking from west to east along the Forth and Clyde Canal, before branching off at the Falkirk Wheel onto the Union Canal and then on to Edinburgh, was a walk of exactly 66 miles. Splitting the walk over three days would mean three very long consecutive days covering approximately 22 miles each day – was it reasonable to invite 11- and 12-year-old children to join me (and of course Mairi and Mark with lots of back up arrangements in place)? I knew the children would need to prepare themselves physically and emotionally for the challenge and I also knew that the school values would need to be on display. I had no doubt we would all reach Edinburgh!
As I had been invited to assume the part-time role of Director of Development following my retiral, it seemed a very straightforward decision, if we went ahead with the Route 66 challenge, to raise funds for Access to Excellence. That clinched it for me, so once again I offered Primary 7 children the opportunity to apply for a place on a 66 mile, cross-Scotland walk over three days.
Very large numbers applied. I went through the same procedure as before which included letters of application highlighting which of the values the children thought would be most helpful as they walked and finally, we had our 12 girls and 12 boys. Our adventure took place over three mostly sunny days and proved to be one of the most magical experiences of my career. The children were quite amazing as they walked for 10 hours each day with short breaks every hour. They laughed, they chatted, they formed friendships which will last for a very long time but, perhaps most important of all, they learned a lot about themselves which they will carry with them, all of it based around the nine values. They had to be very enthusiastic and committed, they had to take responsibility for their own progress and to be confident that they could cope with tiredness, aches and pains and the prospect of another 10 hours the next day. Even more importantly, they displayed incredible kindness to each other and a deep appreciation of each other’s kindness. If a child was struggling, and each of them (and us!) did endure moments when they thought they were too tired to continue, there were always others who walked alongside them, started chatting with them, shared chocolate, told them jokes and offered to carry their rucksacks.
After the initial excitement of the first morning, we settled down at a steady pace and reached our destination near Kilsyth in the early evening. Our most ‘exciting’ stop on the first day was an unlikely one as we enjoyed ice-creams on a bandstand in the middle of Clydebank Shopping Centre through which the canal runs. This was just about the only time we were surrounded by buildings until we reached Linlithgow more than 24 hours later and then as we finally approached the outskirts of Edinburgh at the very end of our walk.
The morning of the second day seemed to pass very slowly as we trudged east. The sun was hot and, away from the canal, the surrounding countryside was flat and featureless as we slowly headed across open land for mile after mile. The reward was lunch and ice-cream when we eventually reached the Falkirk Wheel and I was able to tell the children we had reached the half-way point. One of the girls seemed less impressed than I would have hoped and told everyone that meant we had another 33 miles to walk! Still, spirits remained high as we climbed up above the Wheel and started along the Union Canal.
Some hours later we turned a corner and were confronted with the sight of an amazing picnic which had been prepared and beautifully laid out for us at the side of the canal by a very kind and generous school family. We ate and drank far too much and forgot for a moment that we still had several more miles to walk before our second overnight stop. We eventually persuaded aching limbs to trudge on again towards Linlithgow and were delighted to be welcomed to the Canal Centre by other school families who had hung supportive banners on bridges over the canal to greet us.
After lots of pizza and ice-cream everyone slept very well before our early breakfast and the final 22 miles which started from the Canal Centre and would finish at Union Quay. The weather had turned and it was raining, which was somewhat of a relief after two days of constant sun. My colleagues and I bandaged some blistered feet, there were a few tears of tiredness and anticipation but soon the realisation we were starting the final day hit home, spirits lifted and off we set. As we began to move through West Lothian, children started to recognise familiar landmarks and the pace quickened as muscles stopped screaming defiance (and that was just me!). The sun returned and in the late morning we passed the Ratho Climbing Centre, rounded a bend and saw The Ratho Inn in the distance. We had planned to meet with the children’s families for lunch and, as we approached, it became clear that there was a very large welcoming party on the bridge and outside the Inn. Hugs were exchanged, lunch was eaten and we set off on the final 9 miles. There was no more talk of blisters as we began to walk towards the Edinburgh suburbs. We stopped for a final time about a mile from the end of the walk and my colleagues and I told the children how incredibly proud we were of them, and how incredibly proud they should be of themselves for having proved that walking 66 miles in 3 days was a challenge which they could achieve.
We decided to form one tight group for the last few minutes and eventually we came round the final bend where the children caught sight of what seemed like hundreds of family members and friends applauding and cheering as we reached the end. We all gathered for a final pizza at the end of an amazing three days and, by the time all the sponsorship income had been added up, I was delighted that yet again the children had more than exceeded my expectations and raised a total of over £30,000 for Access to Excellence.
That was my final walk, however I am delighted that the tradition continues although the route has changed to an annual 55-mile walk along part of the West Highland Way.
I cannot end this section without mentioning three very different highlights.
The first happened in 2005, when what initially seemed like an impossible dream in the end turned out to be a huge success thanks to the incredible commitment of so many of my musical colleagues, who by then had supported our children’s West End involvement for more than 10 years. We had made some very good friends among the professional performers who had worked with our children and I decided to try to recognise our first ten years by hiring the Festival Theatre for our own celebration concert to which I gave the title ‘Curtain up’. All the choirs in the schools came together, the show sold out and there was a collective gasp from the audience when the curtains opened and 500 children sang ‘Rhythm of Life’ at the start of a never to be forgotten two hour show which featured songs from the musicals, some performed by our West End guests but the majority involving various groupings of children.
The children had been prepared in school by their different Music teachers under the guidance of our amazing Director of Music, Helen Mitchell, and on the evening they were in the hands of Kate Young who assumed the role of Musical Director and accompanied and conducted every number. It was a particular pleasure for us all that Kate was with us as it was she who, as I have already said, had directed our first-ever ‘Joseph’ choir 10 years earlier. Kate’s daughter Laura was a boarder at The Mary Erskine School at the time and one of the highlights of the concert was a duet performed by Laura and her Dad Gareth Snook, another of our professional guests, accompanied by Kate. It was also a pleasure to welcome a second former pupil of The Mary Erskine School, Morag McLaren, as another of our visiting professionals.
Looking back it all sounds quite straightforward but it was almost a bridge too far, perhaps several bridges too far Consider the following and you will see what I mean:
We had no access to the theatre until the morning of the show so everything had to be rehearsed and polished in record time, no mean feat given that the show included over 20 numbers, each of which had to be choreographed (Jane Duffy, take another bow!)
There were over 500 children involved – can you begin to imagine backstage!?
Some of our leading soloists were away on CCF camp and with permission were due to leave the army camp somewhere in the north east of England before breakfast to get to the theatre in time to rehearse. The coach from Edinburgh arrived shortly after 6.00am to collect them and found the gates to the camp locked and no one answering the phones. After a scarily long delay an excellent coach driver eventually got our performers to the theatre but it was touch and go and their rehearsal had to be curtailed.
The second highlight relates to the day I persuaded the ‘Joseph’ management team and the Festival Theatre bosses to allow Pudsey on stage to be filmed for Children in Need. We were trying to raise £20,000 that year and had persuaded the Children in Need team to send Pudsey to perform with us. All seemed fine until I was approached 20 minutes before curtain up to be told that if filming took place the show would be stopped immediately – I was sitting in the projection box with the cameraman at the time. I was told we did not have permission to film the performance. I showed my official theatre and company permissions but was informed by the man who had approached me that he represented the back-stage crew who, he told me bluntly, were all freelancers whose permission was also needed if any of their lighting, sound or staging expertise was to be filmed – they ‘owned’ the intellectual rights to their own areas of expertise and should be paid for its use. He said they would waive their rights in return for triple pay which would come to hundreds of pounds. My explanation that the filming was all being done for Children in Need had no effect. I said that whatever happened the filming would go ahead and I went as far as to promise that either the schools or I would pay if necessary (a scary moment!). I asked to see their boss and he came across for a chat from the King’s Theatre. He was friendly and empathetic but no more than that! Nothing was resolved at the time, the filming went ahead, Pudsey danced on stage, lots of money was raised and some of our children ended up as guests on the live ‘Children in Need’ show. And the payment? I waited for the invoice but someone, somewhere saw sense and the matter was dropped.
In 2011 I was asked whether we had any children who could play the two lead child roles in a new production of ‘The Secret Garden’ which features a young girl and boy called Mary and Colin. Cameron Macintosh had bought the rights to the musical and planned to premiere the show in the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh for several weeks before taking it to the Princess of Wales theatre in Toronto, which he owned. He had mentioned to the Festival Theatre chief executive that his casting director was struggling to find suitable children from the various theatre schools in London (they had identified one girl and one boy but needed two pairs to cover all the shows). The Chief Executive suggested sending his Casting Director to our Junior School to see if he could find a suitable boy and a girl. He and his team duly arrived and seemed very dubious that an ‘ordinary’ school could provide him with what he needed for such a high-profile show. Suffice it to say that he quickly changed his mind during two days of auditions after which he told me with a sense of wonder that he could have offered the parts to several children. He had selected Sophie Kavanagh and Toby Hughes and I was of course delighted.
Following several weeks of rehearsals in London the show opened in Edinburgh to rave reviews and, after performing for about 6 weeks, Sophie and Toby then spent 9 weeks in Toronto, always accompanied by at least one parent, performing the lead roles in the Princess of Wales theatre. The company very kindly arranged for my wife and me to fly out to Toronto for a week and it was one of my proudest moments to attend performances of ‘The Secret Garden’ in Toronto and to join in standing ovations for two very talented but ‘ordinary’ children from our Junior School.
And now for something completely different!
Very short notes (but no more!) of a few major developments …………..
As I decided early on not to write in detail about many of the major physical and other developments which were and remain very important to the life of the Junior School I will merely mention the reconfiguration of all our classrooms, which meant moving the Primary 6 and 7 girls from their single-sex classes at Ravelston to form coeducational classes with the boys at Queensferry Road, a move balanced by transferring the Primary 1 to 3 boys to Ravelston to form coeducational classes with the girls there. This was made possible by the construction of Easter Ravelston in 1990 which accommodated the Primary 1 classes as well as a hugely-expanded Nursery while the Primary 2 and 3 classes moved into what had previously been the Nursery rooms and the classrooms for the Primary 6 and 7 girls. Yes, I know it sounds complex but I can assure you that it seemed even more complex at the time!
Nor will I spend time talking about how the demand for After School and Holiday Club provision grew in line with changing family needs to such an extent that dedicated spaces were needed. The demand eventually led to the construction of New Ravelston in 2007, balanced by new facilities at Queensferry Road.
It was not only the After School and Holiday provision which needed to be addressed. As the school developed the Principal and Governing Council were very ambitious for the further development of Junior School accommodation and in the years after the millennium plans were laid for the reconfiguration of many of the Junior School facilities at Queensferry Road. The key which unlocked the logistical puzzle as to where classes would be taught during the construction period was the acquisition and reconfiguration of Queensway House on the corner of Queensferry Road and Queensferry Terrace to create classrooms for all of Primary 4 and half of Primary 5. The next phase, and the final one in which I was involved, saw the creation of very smart new facilities for the Headmaster and Primary 4 to 7 Junior School administrative staff. Having spent all 27 years of my own time as Headmaster working out of converted cupboards in the middle of the main Junior School classroom block, I magnanimously retired at the same time as ‘my’ new office accommodation opened, ready for my successor, Mike Kane, to move in!
SPECIAL MUSICAL MOMENTS PART 1 There is so much that I could write about major developments, about the big issues and changing educational fashions, but instead what I have decided to do is recall some memorable moments and events.
CHILDREN ON THE PROFESSIONAL STAGE PART 1 In the summer of 1994 an invitation was sent to hundreds of Primary Schools across central Scotland asking if their children would like to audition to perform as the choir for the touring version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ which was scheduled to be produced in the Playhouse Theatre 104 times over the winter. The Director was looking for two ‘teams’, each consisting of children from two schools, to share the run. Although I had organised over 50 visits to West End theatres earlier in my career (and was still doing the same for children in Primary 6 and 7) until that time I had no expectation that any of our children might have an opportunity to appear in professional productions.
Still, it seemed like a good idea so, as requested, we sent a cassette tape of our choir singing a couple of songs to London. I did not think much more about it until we were told we had been shortlisted with 23 other schools for live auditions in Edinburgh. It all began to seem a bit real then! Our choir was successful and we were paired with children from St Dominic’s Primary School in Castlemilk in Glasgow. Under the guidance of the Children’s Musical Director, Kate Young, who turned out to be a former pupil of Mary Erskine who was at the time enjoying a very successful career as a Musical Director in London, the children became close friends. She worked with the choir for almost three weeks in Leith Town Hall before the opening night of their run of 52 shows which were spread over three months.
I enjoyed the ‘Joseph’ run at least as much as the children and was particularly impressed by how quickly they matured as they strove to meet the professional standards demanded of them, even as they became more and more tired as the weeks turned to months. They all ‘hit the wall’ once or twice but they emerged stronger for it and I began to wonder if there might be an opportunity to do something similar again. I had no idea where to start so I decided to phone every company which was scheduled to bring a musical to Edinburgh to let them know we would love to provide any children needed for their casts. After some natural hesitation I managed to persuade casting directors that I was serious and, once it became clear that we could prepare the children (something which could never have happened without the support of our incredible Music Departments and Jane Duffy, our legendary Head of Dance) and that I was happy to arrange for all their transport and supervision, I began to receive calls asking for children rather than having to make them. Needless to say, the standards of performance and behaviour of the children had to be exceptionally high or we would have been dropped in an instant but in fact during the next 20 years girls and boys from the Junior School were part of over 35 productions (including over 250 appearances as the ‘Joseph’ choir, a tradition which still continues) on over 750 occasions.
Spending so many evenings backstage was an education in itself as the children and I, as well as all the other colleagues and parents who helped with supervision, quickly realised that mistakes are made, lines forgotten, props go missing and so on. What was very impressive was how rare it was for the audience ever to notice the mistakes, so expert were all the professionals at covering up what had happened. The children were sometimes caught up in these mistakes, adapting to unusual circumstances…
During a performance of ‘Scrooge’ with Tommy Steele one of our boys was on stage walking around with his stage parents and pointing out all the lovely food items in a shop that his ‘family’ could not afford at Christmas – ‘I’d like some apples, I’d like some grapes …’. As the music swelled he realised he had missed a phrase, so he suddenly stamped his foot and exclaimed very loudly ‘Oh no, I forgot the oranges!’. His two stage parents could neither speak nor sing for several seconds which caused the Musical Director a few problems as he had to ‘hold’ the music while they regained their composure.
One night during the Take That musical ‘Never Forget’ the intercom failed. The children in their sixth floor dressing-room did not hear their call to the stage for their big number, which happened to be the title song. We eventually heard a scream from several floors below, raced downstairs and split the children into their two groups as usual so that they would enter from the two wings, one of which unfortunately took a few seconds longer to reach. The music started and the first girl on Stage Left was sent on by the Stage Manager. Glancing across to Stage Right he suddenly realised the second group of children had not yet appeared and made an instant decision to hold back the rest of his group. As a result, there was now one 11-year-old girl on stage on her own as the music continued. No one seemed quite sure what to do next! She realised what had happened and began to move in time to the music. The conductor caught her eye and indicated that he would get the orchestra back to the start of the number. She kept dancing, the audience loved it, a few seconds later the music was back where it should have been, and the two groups of children went on stage to join their friend as though nothing had happened. Panic over – after all, the show must go on!
One year, Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, was in the city rehearsing for a production of ‘Kiss me Kate’ – there were no children in the cast so we were not involved. The rehearsal venue which had been booked was for some reason unavailable so at very short notice we agreed that the cast could rehearse in the Tom Fleming Centre, a decision which could not have been made without the active support of the Tom Fleming Centre team led by Chris Duffy who are always incredibly supportive of all things performing arts. I offered our visitors a school lunch and that proved to be the highlight of the day. When I asked them if they were ready to go across to the Dining Hall, collect their own trays and cutlery and queue with the children Lorna became very excited at the ‘back to school’ opportunity. She arranged the cast in pairs and led them in crocodile-fashion across for lunch, singing all the way and then ‘acting’ as schoolchildren as they enjoyed their lunch with bemused girls and boys. A very unusual ‘Hollywood star comes to school’ moment. Lorna and the others were very gracious, and their Director was very grateful.
Perhaps the most challenging request we ever received happened during one of the ‘Joseph’ runs which was supposed to last for 3 weeks in the Playhouse Theatre. ‘Joseph’ was usually only in Edinburgh for a week-long run of 11 shows but on this occasion we had been asked to provide two choirs, each as usual including 40 children, to share a longer run. The reason for the extended run was the fact that the tour took place almost immediately after a very popular BBC 1 series in the summer of 2007 called ‘Any Dream Will Do’, which was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a new actor to perform the title role of Joseph in the West End. After Lee Mead won the competition and went to the West End, the five runners-up joined the cast of the touring production which was scheduled to be in Edinburgh that Christmas. Two of the finalists, Craig Chalmers and Keith Jack, were both from Edinburgh and so, reflecting the power of television at the time, the 3-week run in the Playhouse sold out very quickly, some achievement considering that there were 11 shows each week and the theatre boasts the biggest auditorium in the country with over 3,000 seats! The children had a fantastic time and then, just as they were beginning to flag, I was asked whether they would be able to continue for another 3 weeks into the New Year as there still such a huge demand for tickets. Needless to say, and following discussions with parents and children, we agreed and the show continued until almost the end of January. We were delighted that both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bill Kenwright flew up to Edinburgh one day shortly after Christmas, came on stage after the matinee and made a point of thanking the schools, and in particular the children, for their involvement over so many weeks.
On one tour of ‘Evita’ the company forgot to engage local adult extras for the crowd scenes and I was phoned the day before opening to ask whether, in addition to the 15 children in the cast, I could now find 20 adult extras at 24 hours’ notice. Well, why not? Following an email to colleagues and parents we quickly enrolled our ‘extras’ and, having learned their roles during a very hectic couple of hours during the afternoon, they were on stage on opening night. Some needed a bit of ‘nudging’ from the cast to make sure they were in the right place as they mourned the death of Evita,shouted (in character!) and much more besides. The audience was none the wiser, the week went very well and a tradition had been started – every time ‘Evita’ returned to the Playhouse thereafter ESMS staff and parents were on stage with the children!
The only part for a child in ‘Miss Saigon’ requires a Primary 1 age girl to perform as the child of a Vietnamese woman escaping from Saigon in a helicopter, helped by American. The scene is extremely loud and the rescuers look very fierce so the potential of a scared child was obvious. However, there was no problem in the end as the actors spent so much time with the child beforehand, showing her that nothing was real and that they were ordinary, friendly actors. She ended up loving the noise and the action and, as was the case with all the children fortunate enough to appear in professional productions, she became a more confident and adaptable child as a result. She and many others only spent one week on stage but plenty of children appeared between 50 and 100 times as they moved up through the schools and played roles in whatever shows happened to be touring in Edinburgh including ‘Joseph’, ‘Annie’, ‘Whistle down the wind’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘The King and I’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘Scrooge’, ‘Never Forget’, ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘South Pacific’. Each appearance required weeks of rehearsals.
WATCH THEIR REHEARSALS AND PERFORMANCES Have a look at two very short examples of children working hard to prepare for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar!’ and ‘Joseph’ below:
Our children’s regular performances in West End shows led to an increasing number of requests for groups of children to support other charities and businesses by singing songs from the shows at a wide variety of events ranging from black-tie dinners to charity fund-raisers. We formed a Show Choir which over the years performed on over 30 different occasions some of which were recorded, including the two available to watch below:
This first video is of The Show Choir performing music from ‘Joseph’ at the ‘It’s good to give’ Charity Ball
Now that I had enlisted the help of a group of colleagues who were looking forward to deciding which values to include on our list, I decided the best way to begin was to google the word ‘values’! As a result, we started off with a selection of almost 90 values words to consider.
The first meetings were straightforward as we whittled the list down to about 30. I had no preconceived ideas as to how many values should be on our list but I do remember thinking that 10 should be the maximum, so that they could be easily remembered. I was surprised when several members of our group said there should be an uneven number and, although to this day I have never understood why an uneven number was so important, I was happy to go along with their recommendation and we agreed that we were looking for either seven or nine as the ideal number.
Then the hard work began as we began to discuss animatedly the subtle differences between very similar values like honesty and integrity, or commitment and determination. We agreed that we would not include words which were potentially open to negative interpretation such as humility or reliability. We discussed whether a phrase like ‘high expectations’ was a value or an aim. The weeks passed and we managed to reduce the number of potential words to about 15. We had to jettison some early favourites as we inexorably moved towards our final target of nine, having some time earlier decided we would never get it down to seven. I did suggest one more time settling on ten but was reminded that ten is an even number. I did not raise the subject again.
When we finally settled on our nine words we suddenly and collectively felt that we had achieved what we had set out to do. We had created a set of values which we were confident were all positive and complementary to each other and which we believed would challenge all our children, and all the adults who worked with them, to have very high expectations of themselves and their behaviour. The nine values are:
We then spent some months creating visual display materials, rewriting some of our official documentation to reflect the words and discussing as a staff all the ways in which we would introduce the values. By the time they were launched to the children there was a shared understanding of their purpose and relevance among all the adults working in the Junior School and a consistent approach to their implementation had been agreed.
We had decided early in our discussions that we would not teach the values in any discrete way, instead we would try to live them as exemplars, we would use the values words in our day-to-day conversations with children and we would relate our expectations of children’s behaviour to one or more of the values. If for instance a child was accused of bullying behaviour the teacher dealing with him or her would have a conversation about kindness, appreciating others, taking responsibility and showing respect for others. Within a few months we were confident that almost every child understood the deep meaning of each of the values in an age-appropriate manner and were able to discuss their understanding with their teachers in a way which both surprised and delighted me.
I had already agreed with the Principal at the time, David Gray, that we would pilot the values in the Junior School and a decision as to whether to adopt them in the senior schools could be taken once their effectiveness had been established. What actually happened was that the children themselves, as they moved up into the senior schools, began to ask why the same words were not used and so a decision was taken that the values should be adopted throughout ESMS as three school values. They have remained central to our educational provision ever since.
I will finish this section by setting you a challenge which I used to set to visiting parents who were considering the ESMS Junior School as an option for their children’s education. Having told them briefly about the introduction of the values and their significance I then asked them to imagine they were 12 years old and to tell me which of the 9 values they would at that age have considered to be the most important and which the least important. I told them I would be surprised if their views coincided with those of actual 12 year olds! They usually became nervous at this stage, not wanting to give wrong answers even though I had already assured them that there no correct or incorrect answers, only different opinions.
I enjoyed these conversations with visitors because I was then able to explain that different groups of children, when set the same challenge, usually came up with very similar answers to each other. This consistency of response had surprised me at first but, when I listened to them discussing their reasoning, I soon realised that most of them had a much deeper understanding of their meanings than I would have expected.
So which values did they usually select as the least important?
Commitment, confidence and enthusiasm
And the most important?
Appreciation, kindness and integrity
And their shared reasoning?
Commitment, confidence and enthusiasm can be relatively selfish as they affect you more than anyone else while appreciation, kindness and integrity affect your relationship with other people. And this was from 11 and 12 year olds!
There is so much more I could say about our school values but I will confine myself to two final observations. The first is that we found that the use of quotations was a powerful method to reflect in a very practical way just how important each of the values is. I will use integrity as an example;
‘If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters either’.
‘Integrity is honesty when no one is looking’
My second observation and the last word must go to a young boy of Nursery age. His Mum told me one day of an animated conversation she had with him when she came home from work feeling exhausted and was immediately faced with the daily challenge of cooking a meal for her children. She told me she couldn’t face the thought of starting from scratch and, knowing that the little boy loved pizza, she said to him she was going to order a carry-out pizza, wasn’t that great! She was surprised that he seemed less than impressed and shouted something at her which she didn’t understand but sounded like ‘mitmen’. She asked him what he meant but he kept repeating the same word at some volume. Fortunately, his big sister came into the kitchen just in time to rescue the situation. When her brother said ‘mitmen’ to her she told her incredulous Mum that the little boy was cross because she wanted to opt for a carry-out which in his view definitely did not show the commitment he would have expected from his mother! He must have been listening very carefully to his Nursery teacher explaining the meaning of commitment, although he had perhaps interpreted it too literally! Out of the mouth of babes etc., but Mum did tell me that she had the last laugh as she went ahead with her pizza order. Somehow, I imagine her son did not object. He had, after all, retained the moral high ground while still enjoying his pizza!
Last week I highlighted the very high expectations ESMS staff have of our children. These high expectations were eventually formalised through the introduction of the nine Junior School Values.
I initially found the concept of shared values difficult to reconcile with the competitive instinct which is ingrained in all schools. During my first years as Junior School Headmaster I began to wonder whether there was an inherent unfairness in the way schools were run. Why was there an assumption that the ‘best’ children were those who played in the top sports teams, sang in the top choir or won prizes because they were the best mathematicians? How much of their success was due to their natural ability rather than the effort they made? Did we recognise appropriately the children who always worked as hard as they could, always tried their best in their extra-curricular activities and could always be relied upon to be friendly, kind and truthful? Even though we always told the children we valued each of them equally is that what they thought? I began to ask them and was not really surprised that most of them thought ‘the school’ had favourites who always seemed to be ‘shown off’ on public occasions.
I had always believed in competition, and I still do. I was aware that I regularly sought out opportunities for our successful children’s achievements to be recognised in the media and that I had made much of groups such as our ‘Joseph’ choirs, whose members were selected through very competitive auditions. I began to wonder whether it really was true that we were in danger of valuing children in terms of what they had achieved or could achieve rather than the effort they made. Not everyone will win awards in the fields of sport, music, drama and similar activities if they do not possess natural talent or ability – some girls and boys are fortunate to have been born with hand and eye coordination or perfect pitch and, if they work really hard to make the most of their natural abilities, they are always likely to achieve a higher level than others who work equally hard, and perhaps harder, to maximise their talents but who do not have the same level of natural ability. I gradually came to realise that it was just as important to find ways to recognise children who always tried their best and gave everything without ever winning awards or prizes.
I sometimes issued questionnaires to children as they left Primary 7 asking them to share their best moment, their worst moment, their favourite memory etc. I still remember the comment shortly after the millennium which finally made me decide that we should find a means which would enable us to recognise every child as an individual without compromising the importance of competition and the public recognition of success. One boy, when answering a question which asked him what his proudest moment in the Junior School had been, wrote:
‘The night I wore my Stew Mel rugby shirt in bed before I played my only ever game for the fourth rugby team in Primary 6’
The result of the game he played, even the game itself, did not matter much in the grand scheme of things but to this one boy it was a huge moment and would perhaps be the only time he represented his school. We needed to find a way which would ensure that he felt that his hard work and efforts were recognised and valued and I knew then with certainty that only shared values could achieve this. Children needed to be valued for the effort they made more than for what they could achieve and, if they enjoyed playing sport and worked hard at it, they should feel that their contributions were equally valued no matter what team they played in.
It was a happy coincidence that the opportunity to introduce a new whole-school ethos presented itself shortly after this particular boy’s answer had made me stop and think. It goes without saying that individual teachers had always naturally recognised children in this way, the challenge was for the children to realise that the school as an entity also reflected what they experienced in their own classrooms. I wanted them to know that ‘the school’ valued each of them and was as proud of each of them as their Class Teacher.
It so happened that the schools at the time were considering the possibility of adopting the International Baccalaureate style of education. To inform our discussions the two Deputy Heads in the Junior School, May Rycroft and Gillian Lyon, travelled south to visit Junior Schools which followed the IB system. They returned having concluded that, although we should not make any significant changes to our ways of working, there were aspects of the IB system which we should consider adopting, in particular their attitude to shared values.
If there is such a thing as a Damascus moment, that conversation with May and Gillian was my one! We had always emphasised the importance of personal values to children, and we talked about them a lot, but we had never really concentrated on a consistent, whole-school approach. This inevitably meant that children were likely to hear slightly different interpretations of values words from their teachers. They would be told about the importance of truth, of honesty and of integrity but were these the same values or were there subtle differences? May and Gillian told me that in the IB schools they had visited they were struck by the fact that the same values words seemed to be displayed in all classrooms for children of different ages. When they asked about the reasons for this approach they were told that it was to do with consistency – pupils in IB schools tend to be from families who move around a lot as parents develop their careers. The IB schools believed that consistency of values in whatever schools the children attended would help them to feel at home and to understand the culture of each of the schools they attended.
I decided there and then that we should introduce the concept of shared values for children from Nursery to Primary 7 and was delighted that my senior colleagues agreed with me. I invited teachers and members of the support staff from across the Junior School to join a working group to decide which values we should include and began a series of weekly meetings with about 20 who volunteered to take part.
In 1987 I was asked if I would like to run a major school capital appeal to fund the construction of new Technology Centres on each site – I think my senior management colleagues must have thought I would be the perfect candidate given my ‘expertise’ teaching Latin verbs on the BBC computers! I am not sure looking back why I agreed so readily as at the same time I continued to teach almost a full timetable (I think I was given three periods off each week for the year!), run the Classics Department, lead an overseas tour or two, coach the 1st XV and whatever else I was doing at the time. There was also the slight problem that I knew virtually nothing about the new world of technology other than that it was ‘a good thing’ which made it slightly challenging when I was asked technical questions about what the schools needed and why, as I visited various companies which had been identified as potential supporters.
My very first visit to a major international IT company headquartered in Edinburgh was particularly instructive. After a friendly conversation with the CEO (who was also the parent of an SMC boy), I was amazed to be asked how much I wanted. I had not thought that far ahead so just said £20,000. I was surprised, very surprised, when he took out a cheque book (remember them?) from a drawer and started to write a cheque. However, he stopped before inserting the school name and said he had suddenly thought of a problem. He then showed me a letter he had recently received from a national charity which focussed on children with disabilities asking if his company could donate a mini-bus to be used to bring children to various activities. The CEO wondered out loud who should get the cheque he was writing and I said that of course it should be used to support the children’s charity. He smiled and completed the cheque.
Feeling somewhat deflated I thought that was it until he explained that although I had presented the schools’ case well, I had made a crucial mistake by asking for a charitable donation. Yes, he knew the schools were a charity but the purpose of his company’s charitable donations was not to support the development of schools like ours, however important the cause. He told me that rather than asking for charity I should have told him how fortunate it was that I was giving him the opportunity to invest in the future of his company by developing strong links with schools whose pupils might become his employees. He then explained that he also controlled a second budget which backed projects worthy of his company’s investment so I asked him if he would consider a £20,000 donation from it instead. He wrote a second cheque and I learned an important lesson!
After this slightly inauspicious start I felt that nothing ventured, nothing gained and with the support of numerous colleagues who were happy to organise fund-raising events too numerous to recall, as well as admin support from the school offices, I began to approach more and more businesses linked to the schools and to ask for contributions. I am not sure how we managed it but we did succeed in reaching the £1 million target. The centres were built and, I am pleased to say, are still in use 40 years later. I remember that one of the events we organised was the first Fun in the Sun, a huge outdoor event at Ravelston which included hot-air balloons, stalls of every description, a dog show and all the fun of the fair. The sun shone all day so, whenever I organised other Fun in the Sun events to raise money for some cause or other, everyone knew the sun would shine …… and it always did! Well, almost always!
The Duke of Edinburgh was invited to open the centres and agreed. On the day of the official opening he was driven in through the Queensferry Road gates past flag-waving Junior School children and stopped to chat with them.
Twenty years later, and by now Vice Principal, I was asked to lead another capital appeal, this time to raise the very considerable sums needed to transform the gloomy but functional SMC Assembly Hall into what is now the Tom Fleming Centre. This time there was considerably more administrative support. Sufficient sums were raised for the Governors to decide that the project should go ahead and excavation started in August 2006. Almost 600 tons of soil etc were excavated from below the basement of the Assembly Hall in two dumper trucks before the beautiful new Performing Arts Centre began to take shape and eventually became a jewel in the ESMS crown. I was asked to ensure that it paid for itself by the sums generated from external lets and enthusiastically began to do just that. However, within a few months it became clear that school use of the new facilities was increasing exponentially as more and more colleagues requested access. The need to generate income was quietly dropped and the Centre became the heart of the Queensferry Road site.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Brian Head resigned from his position as Head of what was snappily called at the time The Combined Junior School of Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College and the Mary Erskine School (known colloquially as the CJS) in June 1989, his departure coinciding with the retiral of the Principal, Robin Morgan, and his replacement by Patrick Tobin. I was very happy and settled in my role as Head of Middle School at SMC and 1stXV rugby coach but decided to apply for the Junior School post for reasons which I cannot now recall except that I knew I would enjoy working with younger children and that I liked a challenge. I had always looked forward to the Primary 7 classes to whom we taught Latin at the time. I was more surprised than anyone else when I was offered the post and accepted it before someone changed their mind.
This was undoubtedly the best decision I ever made and the next 27 years proved to be full of memorable moments, far too many for me to even try to recall more than a very few.
Before I do so it is only fair to say that soon after my appointment and before I assumed my new responsibilities I did wonder momentarily whether I had made the correct decision. This followed a conversation with some senior boys after a Higher Latin class who told me they thought I must be mad – one of them said he could not imagine spending all his time with young children given the fact that he found his 10 year old twin brother and sister so immature!
However, I think I always knew that it would be a great move and was even more convinced following two conversations shortly after I took over which confirmed in my mind just how fortunate I was to have been given such a wonderful opportunity.
I have already said that as a senior school teacher, I always enjoyed teaching the basics of Latin to Primary 7 children but it is also true to say that I tended to set different expectations for Junior School classes in comparison to what I had expected of the Senior boys. During my first week in my new post I decided to speak with groups of Primary 7 children to see what they thought about school and was very struck by how mature and sensible they all seemed to be during our conversations. I asked why they thought I had found boys of their age immature when I had been an SMC teacher whereas they now seemed so much more mature and interesting. They told me quite openly that they behaved like little children in classes taught by secondary school teachers because that is what the teachers expected. However, as they were at the ‘top’ of the Junior School their primary school teachers expected them to behave maturely – so they did! Lesson learned!
This lesson was reinforced almost immediately by an incident in an SMC Science laboratory during a class which was being delivered to Primary 7 boys by a senior school specialist. They had been given safety instructions which included being told they were not to touch test-tubes or anything else made of glass. One of the boys had received a punishment for carrying a glass beaker across the room and I was asked to speak with him. He apologised but did not seem to understand what he had done wrong, other of course than not following instructions. I asked him why he thought the punishment was unfair and he told me that children in the Junior School from Primary 5 age were allowed to carry glass implements and trusted not to injure themselves. Now he was two years older and was no longer trusted! It was of course all to do with expectations and I learned an important lesson which I would never forget – children will meet high, or low, expectations. The higher the expectations, the more the children in the Junior School would flourish. I never underestimated them again.
One of the things that attracted me to want to teach at Stewart’s Melville was knowing that rugby, which was very important to me both as a player and a young coach in Dublin, was at that time very much the major school sport. I enjoyed my rugby-coaching days so much that as far as I can remember I did not ever miss a Saturday looking after a rugby team (and cricket in the summer term) for the 16 years I spent as an SMC teacher. The first nine years saw me looking after the top team in third year before I was invited to coach the 1st XV in 1983. My six years in charge provided me with some of my most cherished memories and I was even invited to coach the Edinburgh Schools team, and also the Scottish Schools Sevens team who played against Ireland at Twickenham! There are of course far too many incidents to recall, both amusing and serious, but here is a flavour:
Early on in my career and unbeknown to me a boy in S3 had been ‘asked to leave’ Stewart’s Melville for various reasons, mainly involving bullying other boys. He had ended up in another school and was selected for their top team against whom we happened to be playing on the first weekend after he started. Our boys kicked off, an opposition player caught the ball and was immediately jumped on by half of our team in what I quickly realised was an extremely aggressive manner, something which I had never seen before. The referee blew his whistle very loudly and, as he could not identify who had started the ‘attack’ he demanded to know who it was. To my amazement half of the Stewart’s Melville boys immediately claimed it was them and it was only afterwards that I realised they were all very proud that they could get their own back on their former schoolmate without fear of retribution. I had already apologised profusely to the referee for their disgraceful behaviour but at least I now knew that their actions were not typical!
I remember very clearly one frosty morning when the 1st XV were about to play a vital match against George Watson’s College wondering why one of our star players had not turned up and why there had been no phone-call to explain his absence. I was just about to call for a replacement when another boy’s parent told me that he had just seen our missing star on Ferry Road and that he was in the process of being booked for speeding! He eventually arrived just in time and seemed surprised that I wasn’t as grateful as he had hoped cosidering that he had been willing to drive over the speed limit because he was so keen to arrive in good time! I half expected him to suggest the school paid his fine!
It was a fairly regular occurrence for boys in the 1st XV to pass their driving-tests at some point during the season. One morning when we were about to set off by coach to play against St Aloysius in Glasgow, Doddie Weir drove very loudly in to the car park, told me he had just passed his test and asked if he could drive to the game with a couple of other boys who had arrived in the car with him. Looking back I have no idea why I agreed but Doddie was always very persuasive but I eventually did on condition that they stayed right behind the bus the whole way. I took the extra precaution of telling Doddie that, if for any reason they ‘lost’ the bus, he should take the turn off the motorway to Shotts.
Needless to say they ‘lost’ the bus but I was nevertheless surprised that they had not shown up half an hour after we had arrived. This was of course before the advent of mobile phones so we had no option other than to enlist the support of four boys who had just finished their own earlier game. Shortly after kick-off the four missing boys arrived. I demanded an explanation and Doddie told me that they had been looking everywhere round Shotts for the school, including the area around the prison, before eventually being told that perhaps their teacher had meant to tell them to take the exit to Stepps, not Shotts! I realised with a sinking heart that they were correct and the fault was mine so the matter was quietly dropped. We did of course lose the match, some of my colleagues reminded me of the incident for years afterwards and no one was ever allowed to drive to an away match again!
During my time as 1st XV coach a directive was issued from the SRU that each home team had to have a doctor on the touchline. On a very wet and muddy morning at Glasgow Academy, our very large American winger, who had a slight eye defect which made him appear cross-eyed (a significant advantage whenever he eyed up an opponent prior to sidestepping him!), was tackled heavily and initially appeared to be quite badly injured. The referee insisted he was removed from the pitch to be checked over by the doctor. I wanted him back playing as the scores were very close and he had an important role to play.
I was initially very impressed that Glasgow Academy had two doctors on standby but not so happy that they seemed to be very worried as they looked at him, neither willing to make a decision about his fitness to return. I realised they were concerned about his eyes and tried diplomatically to explain about his eye defect. I got the impression they did not believe me so I said they would simply have to make the call. They clearly did not know each other and neither seemed willing to make a decision. I wondered whether the fact they were Glasgow Academy parents meant they were deliberately taking as long as they could, but when they told each other that they were respectively a Gynaecologist and a Clinical Psychologist I understood that they were about as useless as I was. In the end they decided to believe my explanation, the boy returned to the pitch and from memory scored the winning try after selling an outrageous dummy!
BACK IN SCHOOL
There was of course much more to my early years at Stewart’s Melville than tours and rugby and I thoroughly enjoyed the years I spent as a teacher, a Form Tutor, Housemaster of Cromarty and Head of Classics before for some reason best known to others I was invited to join the Stewart’s Melville Management Team in 1987 as Head of Middle School at the same time as Ernie Wilkins was appointed Head of Upper School. I use the word ‘invited’ deliberately as I found out about my appointment by reading the Staffoom notice-board. The post had not been advertised, no one was interviewed and everyone was surprised, including me. When the Principal, Robin Morgan, was asked by colleagues why he had not advertised the posts he said he knew who he wanted so what was the point of advertising? I suppose that made some sort of sense to him if not to anyone else and is certainly almost as far from what would happen in today’s schools as it is possible to imagine!
A few special memories of my SMC years:
I loved my three years as Housemaster of Cromarty and, being naturally competitive, devoted a lot of time with the Cromarty boys in S3 working out how we were going to win the Carbisdale Shield, awarded each year to the House scoring the highest aggregate number of points across all the Carbisdale activities. We were pretty successful but perhaps deemed by the organisers to be taking everything too seriously, the result being a decision that the Shield would instead be awarded to the House which won the orienteering competition at Carbisdale. By then I was Head of Classics so I never had the chance to try to win the Shield again in its new guise.
I remember trying to show what a modern and up to date approach to technology we could offer boys studying Latin by ensuring we booked lessons in the first-ever SMC computer lab which was situated in a tiny room next to the Technical Department. It contained a few early BBC computers and, with a lot of effort and wasted time, we could just about manage to teach a few Latin verb endings, or at least we could when the boys stopped playing on-screen table-tennis, which was an early attraction. Those were certainly not the days and I have no idea why we ever bothered to leave Room 89 in order to spend 30 minutes or so watching white dots on a screen, always assuming that the computers happened to be working that day.
Weekend Form camps at Ardgartan on Loch Earn, at the Loch Etive bothy and elsewhere were always great fun – we canoed with the boys, we climbed Munros, we sat round innumerable camp-fires and we were bitten by midges. On one outing we showed the boys how to cook for themselves and they set up their calor gas stoves. Unfortunately one of the boys ended up in A&E after we heard a loud yell and discovered him with blistered fingers. I felt a twinge of responsibility when the other boys said it was my fault that he was suffering. I had to agree that I had told them to follow instructions on tins carefully but said I had not expected them to interpret what I said literally. The injured boy had apparently decided to cook some beans and, as the instructions on the tin said very simply ‘Heat and serve’, he had put the tin straight into boiling water, watched it bubbling for a few minutes and then poured away the water before picking up the tin with his hand, That, I suppose, was one way to learn and, after he recovered, he promised that in future he would remember to open the can first before attempting to heat beans!
In 1983 I was joint author (with John Robertson, at that time a colleague in the English Department and later Rector of Dollar Academy) of ‘Stewart’s Melville – the first 10 years’, still available at a bargain price (!) and easily recognisable from its rather lurid pink cover. It was full of anecdotes about what was an amazing period in the school’s history following the merger between Daniel Stewart’s College and Melville College.
Some years later I took a group of Middle School boys to the National Library for some obscure reason. I explained that the National Library held a copy of every book published in Scotland and told them how anyone could borrow any book by having the book date-stamped so that the librarians would be aware where each book was. I even explained that authors received a very small payment each time their book was borrowed.
As we looked around I spotted a lurid pink cover in the Scottish Education section and realised it was the book I had written with John 15 years earlier. I proudly pointed it out to the boys, explained what it was and said how pleased I was that it was still on display 15 years after we wrote it. One of the boys was clearly so impressed that he went across to the shelf and took it out for a look. He seemed somewhat surprised when he opened it. Looking at me he said:
‘Didn’t you tell us that every time a book is borrowed it is stamped?’
‘Yes’, I said, ‘well remembered’
‘And didn’t you say you wrote this book 15 years ago?’
‘That’s what I said’
‘Well then, why has no one ever borrowed it?’
Cue deflated teacher! However, feeling slightly mercenary, I told the boys I would borrow it myself. I did exactly that and am still waiting for my royalties.