Headmaster’s Headlines

Headmaster’s Headlines

10th October, 2017

First, Happy Birthday to Barnaby! We enjoyed wishing Barnaby well on his special day!


Quite intentionally, I am reversing the order this week. Last week, I was away at the annual Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, Belfast, learning how to become a better practitioner. Barbara and I enjoyed walking around the rugby pitches on Saturday but we particularly enjoyed our annual Harvest Festival. We have many pupils from the farming community and I always think these pupils remind us of the critical importance of respecting both the land and the animals on the land.

We always support St Catharine’s Convent Homeless Project, Edinburgh which offers friendship and practical support to homeless and disadvantaged people. It provides morning and evening meals, toilet and shower facilities, and perhaps, more importantly, a warm welcome, a listening ear and a place to call ‘Home’. Our Harvest offerings have already been delivered to St Catharine’s by the Chaplain, the Captain of School and Dr Nugent. I was particularly struck by the words of the visiting speaker, Reverend Peter Dickson. Rev Dickson was at Merchiston from 1980-1987 and is both the son and a great grandson of Merchistonians. He was a Senior Prefect, a member of the Choir and RSM of the CCF. He went on to study a Science degree at Dundee University, and after working as a church assistant in Dundee, took his Bachelor of Divinity at Aberdeen University. He was Minister of High Church, Hilton for 15 years and Minister of Trinity Church, Aberdeen for 3 years.

Peter’s sense of oratory and how he engaged with his audience was of the highest order. On a very poignant, relevant and serious theme he took us with him. There was a hushed, reverential stillness at the end of his address. I do hope that you enjoy  reading his words.

In this week’s Headmaster’s Assembly, I thanked the School for all their gifts for the St Catharine’s Convent Homeless Project, Edinburgh. Moreover, I thank you, all of the parents. I thanked the School for participating in the Heart, Soul and Spirit of Merchiston and I also congratulated the choir for the first anthem of the year.


It is a wonderful pleasure and privilege to be able to share my thoughts with the pupils, staff and all audiences at Merchiston. Of course, they are not original, but I thought it would help you if I reproduced in total my Headmaster’s Message from Tuesday morning.

Headmaster’s Message

One of the most important things that happens in a school is Pulling Together or Rowing in the same Direction … and learning. Recently, we dedicated the Headmaster’s Assembly to the recognition of outstanding achievement at GCSE and AS Level and the awarding of scholars’ ties in several year groups. There were also some remarkable individual achievements, which were not recognised that morning. There will also be some of you who feel you did not do yourself full justice in last summer’s exams and I am sure you will have reflected on this and be determined to do your best by the end of the Upper Sixth.

But I wish to go back to a critical question that I think each and every single one of us should be asking regularly, “What am I learning in this situation?” I do not think I would have been any different, but if I were to ask any one of you after an academic lesson, or a musical instrument lesson, or a drama rehearsal or a sports practice: “What is it that you are meant to be learning during that period of time?”, I imagine that many of us do not know or have not even thought about it.

There is a difference between playing the guitar and practising the guitar. Equally, there is a difference between doing practice papers for an exam and pushing oneself to learn how to do the questions on a paper, which at present I cannot do! In other words, the opposite of Do what you Do Do well! There is a difference between going out for a run around with the rugby/football/hockey/squash/fives and practising skills or planned moves. There is a difference between completing a practical leadership test or a Duke of Edinburgh expedition and learning from it. The high value activity is focusing on the intended learning points.

So, practise the questions you cannot do as opposed to practising lots of questions you can do. You will find that if you do this, your marks go up! We will remember me referring to the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 Hours Practice Theory, but there is no point turning up for a rugby practice and running around in a pointless fashion!’

Equally, what matters – whether this is in music, drama, art or the classroom – is repeating small segments of a piece which are difficult until they are played exactly as desired.

Yes, we have a busy time of the day, but please do not see learning activities of the school day – such as lessons, courses, activities, experiments and practicals – as things to get through. I think you will find that many of your teachers use the phrase, ‘the intended learning outcome’. Be alive to your teachers when they use this phrase, for responding to it is important. Whilst I may not be congratulating every single one of you of a Tuesday morning on your academic excellence, or any excellence, maybe each and every single one of us can accept the habit of asking, “What am I learning in this situation?” I think you can master this and I think this will help each one of you to use your school experiences more productively.

You have heard me speak before about Professor Dweck’s research into growth mindset and fixed mindset. So, a quick reminder of growth mindset versus fixed mindset! I can learn anything I want to versus I am either good at it, or I am not. When I am frustrated I persevere versus when I am frustrated I give up. I want to challenge myself versus I don’t like to be challenged. When I fail, I learn versus when I fail, I am no good. Tell me I try hard versus tell me I am smart. You can succeed, I am inspired versus if you succeed, I feel threatened. My effort and attitude determine everything versus my abilities determine everything.

Professor Dweck has written recently about how growth mindset should not be oversimplified to being just about effort. We need to focus on how effort has led to the outcome or progress in our learning. In other words, it is about effort and learning strategy. It can actually impede our learning if we continue to use failed strategies, so we need to recognise when to ask for help.

There has been some criticism as to whether there is actually any real benefit to promoting a growth mindset. For example, John Tomsett, a headteacher at Huntington School in York, wrote recently:

A year ago, during an informal chat, a Year 10 lad said to me, “I’m sick of teachers standing up in assembly saying things about growth mindset. Learning from failure, resilience. None of my mates really listen. We are becoming resilient to resilience.”

His comments got me thinking about how often we play lip service to an approach designed to improve wellbeing or increase resilience, while failing to ensure that our students are really internalising it. Even worse, how often does the relentless push of this kind of agenda actually having a detrimental effect?

We have since re-evaluated our school culture and now rarely mention growth mindset, but have ensured that every single one of our procedures is true to its principles. Our policies now are designed to genuinely change our students’ thinking about what they can achieve and to increase their ability to manage their anxieties. Rightly or wrongly, we no longer publish targets for Year 7 to 9 (our 2nd form to 4th Form) as publishing targets for individual students can have two dangerous consequences: either students reach their targets and then stop trying; or they get stressed by aiming for an aspirational target they perceive to be beyond their reach, before giving up completely. The latter is particularly damaging. Underconfident students with high target grades will often not try as hard, so that if they fail, they can claim it was because they did not try.

Our expectation now is that all students will work as hard as they can. Our new mantra is “working harder makes me smarter”. It’s a motto even my wife approves of.

By the way at Merchiston, this is also one of the reasons why we do not call “targets” by that word. We call them Challenge Grades.

So, when is it useful to talk about growth mindset? Professor John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, says the most appropriate situation for thinking in a growth manner is “when we do not know an answer, when we make an error, when we experience failure and when we are anxious”.

In the real world, setting aside that the whole school academic environment is geared to fixed mindset, those of us who practise growth mindset without sticking to some rigid definition know that it is about being flexible in approaches to situations in life. We need to recognise when a particular strategy has failed, and use the resources we have available to us to identify another strategy that will achieve our objectives, or our ‘intended learning outcomes’. There is no switching between fixed and growth mindset; there’s simply knowing how to tackle a problem placed in front of you, even if at first it seems impossible.

A further part of the morning included inviting Harry, Head of House in Evans, but also a student leader in our English Department, to discuss that wonderful poem ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats. Here are Harry’s words. And of course, we may also enjoy reading this poem!

‘To Autumn’ by John Keats (Introduction by Harry)

“It might seem that ‘Winter is coming’ but before we get too gloomy about the shortening days and lengthening nights, it is worth considering the beauties of Autumn and all it has to offer. As Keats explains in his poem this is the season of the harvest, when the riches of the spring and summer come to be reaped and when the glorious days of over brimming sunshine come to an end. Which makes me very much doubt that Keats ever visited Scotland in his short lived life of 25 years. However Keats encourages us not to dwell or mourn the loss of light, preparing for its departure, but to instead embrace the liminal and autumnal beauty of October. The poem asks us what it means when we enter the ‘autumn’ of our own lives, and rather than become over melancholic, Keats shows us the significance to reflect on the rich harvest we have reaped and the importance to really make the most of the bountiful qualities of autumn.”

‘To Autumn’ by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Legends’ Tie

I introduced a new tie to the “Which Tie will you Wear?” mantra, namely, the Legends’ Tie. This tie is for pupils who enter our Lower Sixth after having been with us since J4 or J5. The Legends Tie is to recognise and say thank you to those pupils and their parents and guardians who have been a part of Merchiston from the very beginning. We are very proud of our J4 and J5 forms. At Merchiston, these pupils are able to experience the best of primary education with access to senior school facilities and secondary school specialists. Our J4 and J5 forms are very much part of the story and success of Merchiston and so we want to celebrate that. Every pupil at Merchiston is part of the Merchiston Story and has his own Merchiston Journey, but for those who wear the Legends’ Tie, Merchiston has been a large part of their life. Some might say they are “part of the brickwork”! Now we can say that they are Merchiston Legends!

And, I spoke directly to those in J4 and J5 sitting in our Memorial Hall on Tuesday morning, to just think that in 7 or 8 years’ time they too could become an official Merchiston Legend! But many congratulations to our new Merchiston Legends: Charles, Charles, Alastair, Callum, Bassam, Cameron and Douglas. As this is the inaugural year I also awarded the Legends’ Tie to members of the Upper Sixth who meet the criteria, so many congratulations to: Harry, Charlie, Martin, Rufus and Sean.

Sports Roundup

In rugby, the 1XV, 2XV, 3XV, B1s, C1s, C2s, D1s, D3s and F1s won against Robert Gordon’s. The B2/3s, D2s and F2s lost. So, the record reads: P12; W9; L3. The D1s won against St Mary’s and the U12s won against Dean Park School. The U16Bs, C3s and D3s all won against Levenmouth Lions.

In hockey, the 1XI progressed to the next round of the U18 Aspire Cup after a 2-1 win against Harris Academy. In fives, the Seniors won against Edinburgh Academy. In football, the 1XI lost against Clifton Hall and the 2XI won against Fettes. In squash, the U18s lost against Stewart’s Melville.

Well done to all pupils who competed in the Clan Swimming Galas. This is the first time the Clan competition has included Lower Sixth Form pupils. Spylaw won the Fourth Form and Shell Gala and Redford won the Fifth and Lower Sixth Form Galas.

CW/CE Swimming 5 3 2 1
Rog/LVI Swimming 1 3 11 5

Activities Roundup

In terms of activities, we have a vast amount going on at School at present and of course the first raft of internal reports are in process and I urge the School to enjoy reading the comments from staff and setting an action plan in motion to improve. And let’s not forget the wonderful mantra from John Tomsett, “Working harder makes me smarter!”

And what about this for an array of trips: the Fourth Form History trip to New Lanark; pupils visiting Hadrian’s Wall; Mrs Williams hosting a visit to our Spawforth Library by David Goutcher, author of Spy Quest: The Cursed Diamond; an Instrumental Concert in our Memorial Hall last Thursday; a visit to the Kings Theatre to watch ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ as part of our Arts and Cultural Programme; the Academic Leadership Team working hard and smartly on UCAS forms for our Oxbridge, Dentistry and Medical School applications; socials on Friday evening with St George’s and a Third Form Social with Dr Nugent in Pringle. And moving to this week, we have already had the first of five Clan Debating Competitions. Trips and tours away from School this week include the Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Qualifying Expedition; a Mountain Bike Qualification course for the Shell; the Fourth Form going out with the Geography Department in the street crime investigation and how wonderful it is that our Upper Sixth and some members of the Lower Sixth will be delivering two very important Koinonia days for Merchiston as they become the mentors and persons of warmth with youngsters visiting us for our Primary and Prep School Science and Technology Days; Third and Fourth Forms have a Spanish trip to Denia; J4/5 year groups have a night away at Broomlea Outdoor Education Centre and over Half Term our Under 15 and 1XV rugby squads will be at their respective competitions in Langley and Ipswich.

And to conclude this gathering I urged each one of the 110 pupils who were new at the beginning of term to remember that they now know Merchiston so have confidence in themselves as they return for the second half of term. And as ever, I urged the School to remember, remember that where ever you are, over Half Term, all over Scotland, UK, Europe and the World, that each pupil represents the values of his home, his family and his School. I know that I can rely upon each pupil to live that mantra!

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