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ESMS follows the diamond model of education so the boys and girls are educated together at the junior school, separately in the senior school from 12–17 and back to a co-ed set up in S6. Teaching is highly praised. ‘Teachers create enthusiasm that isn’t in your natural area of interest, with the ability to capture imagination and foster the skills you have.’ However, in contrast to…

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What the school says...

The Mary Erskine School is part of ESMS, a vibrant, friendly, family of schools, set in beautiful grounds in the heart of Edinburgh.

We are a diamond school with a co-educational Junior School and Sixth Form. Girls move to The Mary Erskine School for the early years of secondary school allowing them to find their voices, ignore stereotypes and become confident, secure, ambitious young women. At Sixth Form pupils return to a co-educational learning environment to prepare them for life after school. This provides girls with the best of both worlds.

At The Mary Erskine School your daughter will flourish in an environment of academic excellence. She will work at a pace that suits her development. She will experience unrivalled opportunities to challenge herself, discover what she is capable of and excel in ways she never thought possible.

Our pupils leave the school with lifelong friendships, ready to take their place in society as strong leaders and role-models for other women.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Principal

Since 2018, Kirsty Nicholson. Geography degree from Edinburgh followed by teacher training at Jordanhill College in Glasgow. Taught in London state schools for a few years before moving back to Edinburgh. Has taught geography at ESMS ever since – both at Stewart's Melville College and The Mary Erskine School, as well as being head of house at Mary Erskine. Still keeps her hand in, teaching to first years at Mary Erskine. Relaxed and quite quirky, parents rate her highly, appreciating that she knows the school inside out. Married to Douglas with three grownup children. Cycles to school every morning on her electric bike for environmental reasons and to keep fit, and enjoys Pilates. Sometimes can be caught doing a Zoom session with her personal trainer in her office too.

ESMS interim principal since April 2022, David Girdwood. He oversees the three schools (the co-ed ESMS Junior School, The Mary Erskine School and Stewart’s Melville College), each of which are run by their own heads. He has an office on both campuses and divides the week between the two. Degree from St Andrews followed by teacher training at Jordanhill (now Strathclyde), then an MEd at Stirling. Was the first independent teacher in Scotland to be awarded a Scottish qualification for headship. Taught at Stewart's Melville College for 15 years, where he was also a governor. Was also the rector of St Columba’s School for 15 years and is now their chair of governors. Married with two daughters and a Cocker Spaniel.

Entrance

At age 11, 12, 13, fifth year and sixth form. Slightly selective with assessments in English, maths and verbal reasoning. Automatic entrance from junior school. Numbers are up.

Exit

Minimal leakage pre-Highers with most going on to university. Some 55 per cent to Scottish universities, the rest to English, Irish, European or American universities. SATS (for American colleges) not a problem. Students recently went to Harvard and Princeton. Back in the UK, St Andrews, Glasgow, Bristol, Durham, UCL, Glasgow School of Art and LSE all popular. In 2021, 13 medics. Usually a few to Oxbridge.

Latest results

In 2021, 86 per cent A-B at Advanced Higher; 91 per cent A-B at Higher; 97 per cent A-C at National 5. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 56 per cent A at Advanced Higher.

Teaching and learning

ESMS follows the diamond model of education so the boys and girls are educated together at the junior school, separately in the senior school from 12–17 and back to a co-ed set up in S6. This is based on the school’s principle ‘that boys and girls learn differently’ but do not miss out on social interactions through joint extra-curricular activities. ‘The ideal set up,’ one parent told us.

Teaching is highly praised. Parents told us: ‘Teachers create enthusiasm that isn’t in your natural area of interest, with the ability to capture imagination and foster the skills you have.’ ‘Such a nurturing atmosphere and not heavy handed at all. The girls are expected to do well and want to do well.’ ‘It is a large school, but it has an amazing set up, teaching quality subject matter – they give out quality material on the subject.’ However, in contrast to the boys’ school, there were a few grumbles from parents that some of the girls feel more stressed and pressurised than their counterparts: ‘I can’t give the school enough praise, but the boys camp does seem to be a happier camp than the girls.’ One parent wondered if this is down to the different ways the genders cope with stress. But the school is very open to listening – for example, where a subject was primarily taught in the boys’ school (economics), they removed that disparity on the back of parental concern and girls now take economics from National 5 to Advanced Higher. With regards to subject choices, a parent reported, ‘My girls don’t feel restricted in any way. My eldest daughter doing lots of science. It’s brilliant.’

While a bit more formal than at the boys’ school, the teaching we observed was engaging and interactive. We sat in on a RMPS (religious education) lesson, perhaps not typically high on the list of pupils’ favourite subjects, yet it was both interesting and fun. The lesson on Judaism was delivered using a large interactive screen with slides and videos. The atmosphere was relaxed and chatty, and the girls were engaged and quietly took to the task of designing their own menus in groups. Similarly we saw lots of enthusiasm in the S3 chemistry lesson we dropped in on, where the girls were doing group work to answer exam style questions and let out a big ‘whoop’ when they got the answers right.

Class sizes of around 20-22 for first two years, reducing in size to 20 or less for S3-S5 and then between 12-15 for S6. Following the Scottish curriculum, most girls study for eight National 5 exams in S3 and S4. English, mathematics, a science, social subject and a modern language are compulsory at this stage. In S5, they study for five Higher exams (they must do Higher English) while in their final year, they study for Advanced Highers (usually three) in twinned classes with Stewart’s Melville. French, German, Latin and Spanish all on offer from S1 to Advanced Higher.

Firefly Learning is their online virtual learning platform, used to keep track of homework, study tasks, school events and individuals’ progress in learning, and proved invaluable as a teaching hub during the lockdowns during the pandemic. Keen to embrace the best of technology, all pupils are provided with their own learning devices.

Learning support and SEN

Strong learning support both in and out of the classroom. Numbers are below national average 'because it’s a selective school,' we were told. A small number take National 4s instead of National 5s and drop a language for learning support, depending on individual needs. ‘SfL has been extremely helpful and supportive,’ one parent told us.

The arts and extracurricular

Staggering variety of clubs and societies from war hammer club to music tech and board games club, all with specialist teachers. ‘My daughter does a lot – nine clubs from different sports to lunchtime crafting!’ We dropped in on decoupage club where the girls were making beautiful greetings cards, as well as coding club where we were shown games that the pupils had designed, one of them having won a prestigious competition. Terrific teacher dedicated to attracting more girls into computing science. CCF is popular with over 300 pupils. Biggest provider of DofE in Scotland with large numbers getting gold awards.

Drama is on curriculum for younger pupils and can be taken up to Higher and Advanced Higher. The girls utilise The Tom Fleming Centre for Performing Arts at Stewart’s Melville, a renovated Victorian assembly hall with a series of beautiful arched windows. We also visited the stunning newly acquired Dean Church about a mile away – another breath-taking performance venue, this one with an original pipe organ where we saw the thriving pipe band. There are plays and performances throughout the year, most recently Little Show of Horrors and We Will Rock You.

Masses of orchestras, bands and choirs. We were caught the extracurricular concert band in full swing, performing a foot-stomping rendition of the spaghetti western classic, Moment for Morricone. Pupils say the annual house music and house rock competitions are fun. The annual choir performance at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is really special. More than 200 girls have instrumental music lessons and there are 45 visiting music teachers. ‘My daughter sang in the Edinburgh Tattoo choir – it was life changing for her.'

Pupils’ artworks are displayed around the school and there is also a sculpture by a former pupil’s parent – The Weeping Girl features a wooden orb with each of the school’s values inside. Design and manufacture is available as a Higher and Advanced Higher. Exceptional displays of the girls’ product design projects line the corridors, complete with (unusually) a timeline on the ceiling.

Sport

Sport is a big deal here with successes in local, national and international arenas. Biggest among the girls is undoubtedly hockey, as U18 winners of the Scottish Schools' Bowl Competition, the East District Knock-Out Cup and the Caritas Tournament. Not only for the most talented, however, as one parent pointed out: ‘They do a really good job at getting everyone out on the hockey pitch – it’s for all abilities.’ Masses of framed pictures of former pupils that have made it in the sporting world to inspire current pupils. On our tour we caught a glimpse of a well supported charity football match, as well as extracurricular activities in table tennis (popular with the younger students) and seriously dedicated indoor rowers. The main sport of hockey is closely followed by netball and basketball, but there’s such a wide choice so there is something for everyone including swimming (there’s a 25m pool at Stewart’s Melville), badminton, cross-country, tennis and many more.

Boarders

Predominately a day school that offers a small boarding option, mostly attractive to older pupils (over half are S5s/S6s). Housing up to 32 boarders, Dean Park House has the feel of a grand house with stunning original features combined with luxurious modern amenities – think contemporary kitchen, common rooms with a touch-table computer and an electric piano. All very swish. Boarders follow a normal timetable the same as day pupils. Those in S4 and under have to hand in their devices in the evening and Wi-Fi is switched off at bedtime. Sleeps up to 11 girls and 21 boys in small dorms as well as four single rooms and one double.

Flexibility is a selling point for the older pupils, who tend to occupy themselves at the weekend, hanging out or staying over with friends. For younger pupils, planned weekend activities involve trips to the cinema, paintballing, local beaches or a treasure hunt around Edinburgh. Handily located on site so only a few minutes’ walk to classes each morning. Flexi-boarding is available if space is available. Boarders are a mix of Scottish, UK and international pupils.

Bit of a grumble from one parent about the food, but otherwise high praise, particularly for the boarding housemaster. ‘He is excellent, as are all the staff – their kindness and warmth of personality make all the difference. He is also a pleasure to work with as a parent and he instantly provides confidence.’

Ethos and heritage

Mary Erskine was founded in 1694 as the Merchant Maiden Hospital, moving to its present site in Ravelston in 1966, changing its name to The Mary Erskine School and amalgamating with the boys’ school (Stewart’s Melville College) in 1972. Most of the buildings are from the 1960s (designed by William Kininmonth in 1964). White and cube-like (could be mistaken for a hospital), but light and spacious inside. These buildings surround the pretty, but somewhat overwhelmed, Ravelston House, built in 1800 by Alexander Keith in the late Adam manner.

While not as architecturally attractive as the boys’ school, the expansive grounds here means that the girls can play almost all their sport on site and don’t need to be bussed out to other playing fields. There’s more car parking space too.

Senior pupils share the site with the nursery pupils and the lower half of the ESMS junior school. Sixth formers, who are back in the co-ed set-up with Stewart’s Melville, are bussed to classes between the two campuses, about a mile apart. Parents told us that good academic outcomes are the expectation. ‘It’s very welcoming and I really admired that they were very open about their expectations from the beginning.’

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

School is divided into six houses, which pupils stay in from S1–S6. Each has a head of house and an assistant head. These houses are common to both Stewart’s Melville and Mary Erskine, so the various interhouse competitions have mixed teams. From S1–S2 pupils have dedicated tutors and sixth formers are divided into small tutor groups with a personal sixth form tutor.

Awarded the LGBT gold charter. Pupils can choose which pronoun they use, adapt their uniform and move to Stewart’s Melville if they prefer. Toxic behaviours and gender violence are discussed in PHSE, but they have also subscribed with the Scottish government’s initiative, Equally Safe at School, to bring greater focus to the issue. With 15–20 per cent of pupils from different minority backgrounds and a pupil-led equality and diversity committee, they recently undertook a large survey to celebrate different religions, festivals and celebrations to ensure that all pupils see themselves represented around the school. A parent told us, ‘They are keen to ensure that pupils from minority backgrounds experiences are positive and have a voice in the school.’

Pupils and parents

We spoke to a real mixture of parents - first time buyers, medical professionals and children of former pupils, among others. Attracting over a third of Edinburgh’s independent secondary pupils, the school is less elitist than some of its neighbours. Children living far out can spend the night when doing evening activities (as long as there’s room). Children are ambitious but modest and well-mannered. They don’t stand out as particularly exuberant, as at some girls schools.

Coaches from Dunfermline, Bathgate, Eskbank and Haddington as well as around Edinburgh. A few grumbles that a later bus doesn’t run, meaning some kids miss out on extracurricular activities, depending on where they live.

Money matters

Bursaries of up to 100 per cent and scholarships throughout. Those doing well in the entrance exam are invited to sit a scholarship exam. Music scholarships (together with free music tuition) are also available.

The last word

Undoubtedly a big school but its sheer size provides tremendous benefits. Parents on the whole praise the staff as being very knowledgeable and dedicated to their subjects and as having a focus on academic rigour, plus there's an immense array of extracurricular activities and sporting successes. An impressive school with terrific results.

Special Education Needs

We offer support for learning, both in class and in small extracted groups. In the first year some pupils are given the option to do one modern language instead of two, allowing support to be delivered instead. Further up the school, some pupils will continue to follow a reduced timetable depending on their needs.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory Y
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment Y
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability Y
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
PD - Physical Disability Y
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment Y

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