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St George’s School for Girls and Wester Hailes Education Centre are four miles apart.  In status conscious Edinburgh, the distance could be light years.  Yet twelve girls and four teachers recently proved that the barriers of perception can be broken.  The schools’ partnership is not new.  Three years ago, for their curricular cooperation, they jointly won the Scottish Qualification Authority’s partnership award but this initiative went well beyond staff cooperation.At Wester Hailes we wanted to boost girls’ confidence and assertiveness.  We had worked closely with Columba 1400, the leadership development charity founded by Norman Drummond. St George’s has a rich experience of developing girls’ skills and self-confidence. Why not organise a joint Columba leadership academy?  We might build self-confidence and challenge stereotypes.
Other Edinburgh independent schools might have hesitated.  St George’s leapt at the chance.  We both wanted to invest in younger students and plumped for our current second years.
We brought to St George’s six older Wester Hailes girls, previous Columba Leadership Academy participants.  They had to make a presentation at a school they knew only by reputation.  They were nervous and uncertain but they rehearsed meticulously.  They explained the aims and the activities of Columba to the entire St George’s year group.  The first set of preconceptions was broken as they were hosted, fed and welcomed by St George’s students.
The process then developed its own momentum.  Each school carefully selected two staff and six students.  With Columba staff, they met on three Fridays, visiting each other’s schools, getting to know each other, preparing for the week’s leadership academy at Staffin on Skye and becoming familiar with Columba’s core values : awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service.
At the final session, parents, young people, staff and Columba staff met to discuss the week ahead.  This was a truly unique event.  Parents from two such different schools were together, meeting to discuss a programme in which their children would operate as one team and learn together.
The next week the girls and teachers took the long journey to the Staffin centre, a beautiful building in a superb setting.  Columba 1400 is not outdoor education but the natural setting is fully utilised with a mock mountain rescue exercise and kayaking.  Much of the week however was reflective, focusing on personal journeys and on roles in schools and the wider world.
Each evening ended in a circle.  Silence was acceptable but those who had thoughts to share offered them: they would neither be dismissed nor ignored. On the final evening they explored the Columban Garden, a labyrinth in which the carvings on the stones invite contemplation of the world and one’s self.  The labyrinth ends at an open-fire, seated around which everyone had a statement to make on the experience, their sense of wonder, the fellowship they had known.
For myself and Anna Tomlinson, the St George’s Depute Head, who joined the group, the girls’ articulate insights confirmed that the project’s aims had been realised.  For the Wester Hailes girls one of the huge plusses was an experience without boys whom many of them saw as dismissive of them and less committed to learning. Claire from St George’s put it simply: “If we’d had boys we’d not have had such deep conversations.”
At the Friday graduation, each participant is offered the thoughts of the staff and their fellows on their qualities and contributions.  “You really realised how much you’ve developed all these qualities.  Am I really like that?  I am!”
Norman Drummond, the founder of Columba, joined the girls for the graduation.  “To see these fine young people come together in a search for and discovery of their common humanity was both moving and inspiring,” he said. It was a huge fillip to the girls to be met and congratulated on their efforts by the Columba founder.
For each girl, there were personal changes: patience, tolerance, abandoned stereotypes.  Natasha, from St George’s, frankly admitted that without the project, the girls “would simply have never met each other”.  Sophie from Wester Hailes admitted that she feared that the St George’s girls would be “really posh”.  In fact, although the experience was at first “scary” for both sets of girls, there was a sense of wonder at what they had in common, “even though we lived in very different places” but also a candid recognition of reality.  “Edinburgh is one big city,” said Mel, from St George’s, “but it’s as if there were two separate states.”
They learned about each other and about each other’s schools.  Samke, from Wester Hailes (and originally from South Africa) was struck firstly by appearances, the St George’s girls wearing skirts rather than trousers and the absence of boys at St George’s.  She also, with some pride, was able to inform the St George’s girls that Wester Hailes, just like St George’s, has close links with a school in South Africa and that students from each school visit each other.
Both groups influenced each other.  One of the Wester Hailes staff said, “Both sets of girls had pre-conceived ideas.  Wester Hailes girls thought the St George’s girls would be snobby, talk posh and have their pinkie in the air.  St George’s girls thought our girls would be scruffy, rough, use crude language.  In reality, the girls were different, but, they bonded really well and became friends very quickly but the Wester Hailes girls were more open and their openness made them seem more sociable and able to work a room.  Our girls gained confidence from this, realising they were not inferior.”
One St George’s teacher, having taken groups of this age on countless residential trips saw this as “one of the warmest and most coherent groups I have ever been part of.”  In the end, the apparent differences waned and the social gulf was bridged.  “I think the presentation on graduation day said it all- you could hardly tell the difference between the girls and the girls themselves realised this very early on.”
Staff have commented on increased confidence in the classroom among both sets of girls.  As one St George’s teacher said, “Our girls were very nervous about meeting the Wester Hailes students and about what relationship they would form.  The whole experience of Columba helped to break down these barriers.  I think that many of the girls we took really did find their voice and this was largely through the support between the two groups.”
From a Wester Hailes teacher’s perspective the outcome was amazingly similar.  “For most I would say the impact is confidence and self-awareness.  Pupils who were previously very reluctant to offer answers in class did so and there seemed to realise that once they had done it that first time it was easy to do it again! For other pupils I think it is a quieter confidence. The confidence to be able to do what they want, not necessarily what their peers want. I think this is an invaluable skill when young people, especially girls, can be so easily coerced by their peers into undesirable situations and behaviours.”
Although 12 Edinburgh girls (and four staff) enhanced their confidence, articulacy and leadership skills and developed unimagined friendships, the world has not changed.  Even Edinburgh has not changed but such one-on-one transformations might mean that in two Edinburgh schools at least old stereotypes have been well challenged.
The above article was first published in The Scotsman on 29 December 2010

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