‘FIdleis et Fortis’ is the motto of James Gillespie’s High School, in Edinburgh, where I was a pupil for the last 4 and a half years of my secondary schooling. These were formative years but in common with many young people at the time, I know that I did not appreciate enough the influence that the school had on me and on my future life and career. This has been preying on my mind recently, however – no doubt something to do with the sense of tying up loose ends before setting off to move halfway round the planet – and on an impulse I phoned the school a few weeks ago and asked if I could come to visit while I was in Edinburgh last week. I went further, in fact; I explained what I do now in my life and what some of my journey had been, and I offered to help out in some way when I came to visit, if this was deemed desirable.
And so it was that I found myself speaking to a large group of senior pupils on how to maximise their chances of getting into the university of their choice, and to a large group of staff, including staff from nearby schools, on ‘Inspiring Leadership in the 21st Century’. I also spent two hours with the Head, discussing school leadership in general and sharing good practice. It felt as though I was giving back; it was my privilege to have done so. Moreover, it was a pleasure â€“ the students were kind, respectful and at ease with adults, and I hope that my current students at Calne will have the opportunity to encounter them at some point in the future. The staff were great too!
The school was a little different from how I remembered it (not surprising, bearing in mind that I left in 1988) – there was no school uniform, for instance, and it is now a designated Gaelic school for Edinburgh (although English remains the language of instruction). It is about to undergo significant change, however, as it is to be rebuilt over the next 2 years – a massive project costing tens of millions of pounds. The feel and essence, however, seemed to me to be the same; at any rate, it felt familiar.
Interestingly, the Head – an experienced Head who moved to Gillespie’s at the beginning of 2012 – commented that his perception was that the community was one which was not afraid to think critically and to challenge appropriately, in the spirit of ensuring social justice. ‘Moral purpose’ was a phrase that resonated. It often takes people who still retain an outsider’s perspective to speak the truth about organisations, and this was a pleasing truth to hear.
The experience reminded me again – as if I needed reminding! – how important our schools are in forming our young people. It also reminded me to be grateful. School days – contrary to popular expectation – may not always be the happiest days of our lives, nor are they (or should they be) the easiest, but schools matter because they complement and accentuate the work of parents and help guide us through these days and these years; they challenge us, influence us, and help us to grow. They are staffed by people who have committed themselves to leadership – to leading the next generation and to leading the change we need to see in the world. We should all be grateful to these people.
So … thank you, James Gillespie’s High School, for helping me to grow into the person I have become. I will seek to repay the debt I owe you.