Visit to The Royal High School, Edinburgh

By Ms Man Ching Fan Florence and Ms Tam Nga Ying Connie,
HKTA The Yuen Yuen Institute No. 1 Secondary School

26/4/2016 Tuesday

From the very first moment that Archie told us that our school would go into partnership with the Royal High School of Edinburgh in Scotland, I decided to share this fantastic piece of news with the whole school and keep them informed of our progress. An announcement about our visit to Edinburgh, particularly the visit to the Royal High School in April 2016, was made in the morning assembly in early November 2015. To better prepare for the trip, we browsed the website of the Royal High School from time to time to get to know more about our partner school. We also discussed the feasibility of holding various joint-school activities that might lead to school improvements, some examples of which included teachers’ professional development, school administration, student leadership, and also the teaching and learning of foreign languages in both schools (Mandarin in the Royal High School and English Language in our school, for example). With these ideas in mind, we set off to Edinburgh.

It was the fourth day of our visit to Edinburgh on 26 April 2016. At 10:30 am, we arrived at the Royal High School, which was founded in 1128. Mr Paul Chambers, Depute Rector, and Ms Jen Menzies, Depute Rector of Learning and Teaching, gave us a very warm welcome. They informed us of and apologized for the inconvenience caused by the unexpected closure of half of the school campus due to a sudden health and safety precaution which had affected seventeen schools in the district. As a temporary measure, 16 container classrooms had been placed in the campus for teachers and students to use.

As one of our missions was to understand more about the teaching and learning of Mandarin in Scotland, Paul introduced Ruby, their teacher of Mandarin, to us. When Ruby greeted me, I was surprised and delighted because we had met before in Hong Kong. A few years ago she had visited our school together with her colleagues, who were also English language teachers. In Hong Kong, we had exchanged ideas on the teaching of English as a foreign language to Chinese students. Here in Edinburgh, we were eager to observe how the local children learnt Mandarin as a foreign language.

Before visiting the lessons, Paul showed us around and told us some important history of the Royal High School. He told us that of all the celebrated former pupils who had received their early education at the Royal High School, the two most remembered were Sir Walter Scott and Alexander Graham Bell, the distinguished author and inventor respectively. When we were in the school hall, he pointed out the Memorial Doors at the main entrance (which was closed). He explained that every student of the school was proud of the Memorial Doors because only graduates of the Royal High School would be allowed to walk through this door on the day of their graduation.

Next we visited the building which had been temporarily closed. They called it the ‘ghost town’ because no staff or students were allowed to enter it without putting on helmets and fluorescent vests. We observed that in this closed area, there were mainly laboratories, workshops, staffrooms, a canteen and other special rooms. Luckily, the sports ground was open and the 16 container classrooms were in operation.

 

On our way to visit the Science lesson, we walked through the temporary staff room, where Paul introduced us to the teachers. In spite of the uncustomary working conditions, we saw many smiling faces. The science lesson was a F.2 Chemistry lesson about heat and energy taught by Mr Wooton. The students sat around the benches and listened attentively while the teacher was explaining the theory to the whole class. When it was time for a demonstration, he invited me and a student to do the experiment. The student had to wash his hands thoroughly with soap and water first. While his hands were still wet, he had to put his palms together and scoop as many bubbles as possible for me to light them up with fire. The laboratory was filled with screaming and laughter when the bubbles were set on fire. Of course, it was a safe experiment. In order to further stimulate the students’ interest in this topic, Mr Wooton invited Connie to repeat what the student had done and asked me to set fire to the bubbles again. All the students were very excited and attentive due to the humour of Mr. Wooton, especially when he said he was worried about Connie! I could see that the students had become more interested in the lesson after watching the demonstrations.

We then went to one of the container classrooms to visit the Mandarin lesson. There were about 16 students in the room, all of whom were beginners. Ruby, the teacher, used different methods to generate the students’ interest in learning Mandarin. These included reading aloud, singing, acting, and playing games, to name a few. When she demonstrated how to juggle a shuttlecock whilst singing, she drew the rapt attention of the entire class. The students were observably more active in learning when they were given the chance to move around whilst juggling the shuttlecocks and singing the song in Mandarin.

It was almost noon, so we had a quick lunch in the library, where we were greeted by the librarian, Ms Evelyn Smith. After lunch, Connie stayed in the library with Evelyn while Paul took me to another classroom to visit a F.2 English lesson taught by Mr Arbuckle. It was a lesson about analysing movie characters in which most of the students were able to complete their tasks independently. The students were highly motivated by the video clips and the teachers’ thought-provoking questions. Towards the end of the lesson, and with the help and permission of Mr Arbuckle, I told the students briefly about our school partnership programme and showed them some snapshots of our students’ school life in Hong Kong. When asked if they would like to visit Hong Kong, most of them nodded their heads without hesitation.

Afterwards, I moved on to visit a F.3 History lesson taught by Mrs Fraser. Students were required to write down the important events of the topic using a time-line. It was amazing to see that the students had acquired very good note-taking skills. I repeated what I had done in the previous class but the students seemed less interested in the snapshots and video clips – perhaps it was time for recess after the lesson.

On our way back to the library, we passed by a classroom for students with special educational needs. According to the time-table, a teacher would be on duty to supervise these students and give them advice in specified periods. Paul explained how the system worked and expressed his delight at being one of the teachers taking up this duty, as these students would benefit from the greater care and attention.

It was then time to go back to the library and rejoin Connie and Evelyn. Connie would have liked to learn more from Evelyn but the time had slipped away so quickly. She was particularly interested in the Paired Reading Programme, which enabled the senior form students to guide the lower form students to enjoy reading step by step. Another tool that Connie found useful was the Library Block, a system for keeping track of the students’ reading interests and habits. There were also other programmes that Connie would have liked to find out more about but, as time was running short, she would need to follow up with Evelyn by email.

Before our visit came to an end, Paul took us to the Club House to meet his colleagues and discuss our plan for the partnership. We could see a lot of little children playing, reading at their leisure, or enjoying some snacks. Paul informed us that children living in the neighbourhood were allowed to use the facilities in the Club House after school. This policy must be very popular among the parents.

When we entered the Club House Committee Room with Paul, we were welcomed by Mr David Simpson, Depute Rector; Ms Jen Menzies, Depute Rector of Learning and Teaching; Ms Wendy Reith, Curricular Leader of Information and Technology, and Mr Abdallah Serhani, Teacher of Mathematics. In our discussion, they were quite concerned about the political and economic situation of Hong Kong after the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997. We were glad to share our views with them and welcomed them to visit Hong Kong. Then we talked about the education reform in Hong Kong, the development of career and life planning education in recent years, the opportunities for young people, the challenges ahead, and other matters. Finally we focused our discussion on the planning and development of our partnership. Our initial ideas included:

  • inter-school e-learning activities through video-conferencing;
  • classroom links of Mathematics and numeracy, librarian and literacy, music and cultural exchange;
  • development and exchange of Mandarin teaching materials;
  • an after-school Chinese Studies Club in Royal High School;
  • student exchange programmes;
  • joint-school visits to universities in Taiwan, mainland China or Macau, and other places.

 

It had been such a fruitful day, and though it was almost 5:00 pm when we left, both Connie and I were still in high spirits because we had taken away far more than we could have expected. There was one thing in common among the four lessons that I had observed: the students were learning and performing in a welcoming atmosphere despite the high expectations placed upon them. The teachers were knowledgeable, friendly and helpful – yet firm with the students, all of whom were given ample opportunities to take part in the lesson and learn actively. The arrangement for teachers to devote their time to looking after students with special educational needs is also highly commendable.

On our way back to the hotel, Paul continued to share with us his experiences in handling the recent crisis. We understand that it is not only the safety and space that they are concerned about – they also have to respond to enquiries from the media and other stakeholders. Most important of all, it is their teamwork that has made things possible and ensured positive outcomes.

My heart-felt thanks go to Ms Pauline Walker, Rector of the Royal High School, as well as Paul and their colleagues for their warm hospitality and sharing of experiences. I look forward to developing a sustainable partnership for the benefit of our students and teachers, both in the RHS and YY1.

HKSSIP