Since April 2021, Stefan Horsman, previously deputy head at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen. Studied geography at Oxford, followed by a PGCE at Cambridge. Planned gap year teaching in Malawi was a formative experience. Previous teaching posts at Portsmouth Grammar School, Latymer Upper School and Cheadle Hulme School as head of geography.
At ease with our one-to-one, he told of his own educational journey at a state primary school and then Bolton School, where he received bursary support and is still an ambassador. With a strong social conscience, an area close to his heart is widening access to the school. Building on the school’s heritage as an all-girls’ school to promote the advancement of women in the 1900s, future plans include reaching out to disadvantaged groups in poorer parts of Aberdeen to encourage them to access the seven to eight bursaries awarded each year (most full). Hopes over time to increase the number of bursaries further.
Married to Shona, a business coach in Aberdeen; both their children attend the school. Enjoys music and is part of the school choir. Has resumed viola lessons after a 25-year gap. A geographer at heart, he is a keen traveller and has visited over 50 countries, including travel on the Trans-Siberian railway and visiting North Korea. With travel restrictions in recent years, he has discovered a love of gardening. Loves photography and cooking as well as watching cricket and rugby. Half-Dutch, he has been doing an online course in the language.
Entry from lower to upper is automatic. Pupils can and do join at any time – throughout the year (assuming space available). Growing number – but ‘still only a handful’ – joins school for Highers/Advanced Highers at S5/6. Not highly selective school, far broader ability range. Performance for bursary part of criteria.
Just one pupil left post Highers in 2021, though sometimes there’s more. More than 95 per cent to university, odd gap year. Mainly to the (freebie) Scottish unis, with a few south of the border. Currently Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews all popular. One to Oxbridge in 2021, plus eight medics.
In 2021, 93 per cent A-B at National 5; 93 per cent A-B at Higher; 93 per cent A-B at Advanced Higher. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 93 per cent A-B at National 5; 76 per A-B at Higher; 64 per cent A-B at Advanced Higher.
Teaching and learning
Aberdeen is renowned for its success in science and engineering and the curriculum here reflects that, with engineering science and computing science, available from National level to Higher. On our tour, we distracted the exuberant engineering teacher from his equations, who explained the merits of the course to us, which covers design engineering and theory of engineering, and prepares pupils for the first year of the university course. Pointing us in the direction of the workshop, we saw the green kit car, built by pupils in the Formula 24 club, which they race each year. ‘The fifth best in Britain,’ he beamed, telling us about the race at Silverstone. ‘The other schools cheated, of course.’ (Wink, wink.)
Not wanting to put all his eggs in the science and engineering basket, Mr Horsman also wants to give Dundee (a city where the creative industries flourish) a run for its money, by creating a niche in the creative arts, in areas such as music technology, which are growth areas of the future (more of which, later).
Class sizes around 20, though this gets smaller as they go up the schools, sometimes there’s only a handful. ‘Supportive teachers, especially with UCAS,’ a senior pupil told us.
Parents appreciate the number of languages on offer, with French, German, Spanish, Mandarin and Latin up to S2 and at least one language compulsory until S4. While all are to Advanced Higher, they don’t always run, but Mr Horsman says, ‘We do endeavour to, even if just a couple of pupils want to do it.’ The enthusiastic Lowers 4s we saw in their French lesson were counting to 30, spurred on by the expressive and fun teacher. The pupils seemed happy and confident to speak out, even correcting the teacher.
Incorporates the Total French School, with its own head, its hybrid curriculum combining the baccalaureate programme in maths, French and history, Geography and citizenship (taught in French by French teachers), and the Scottish curriculum in all other subjects. This enables French-speaking children to easily transition back into the French system if they return home while also experiencing Scottish school life and integrating with local children. They wear the Albyn uniform. Currently 42 pupils are enrolled, but, unfortunately, on our tour it was a quiet day and we saw only two pupils getting individual lessons. EAL support available.
Good breadth of subjects, with more unusual offerings including sociology to Higher, economics (GCSE and A Level) and PE to AH (unique in Aberdeen). A couple of grumbles from pupils that they’d like more practical subjects, like home economics and financial advice in their civics classes.
Since 2019, the lower school now finishes at 3.55pm, the same as the upper school. For the latter part of the day, they run the Albyn Curricular Enrichment (ACE) Programme as part of the curriculum, including the likes of bikeability, cheerleading and coding. Classrooms here are colourful and laid out beautifully, one with a role play corner and plenty of reading books and wooden toys. Specialist teachers in music and languages. A parent told us how pleased she was of the tailored education she had received for her children, with a personal plan for one of her children since nursery. Particular praise for the deputy head of the lower school: ‘Every school should have a Zibby Brown.’
Learning support and SEN
Two ‘support for learning’ classrooms, one in the upper school, the other in the lower. A dedicated head of department and two qualified SfL teachers. Support for mild to moderate conditions (one or two at severe end), with in-class, small group and individual support offered. Support tends to be in-class in the upper school. No dedicated base, so it is a limited service and sometimes corridor work is unavoidable, which is not ideal. Pupils are expected to do a full curriculum (though this could be Nat 4 instead of Nat 5), and numbers below the national average because of entrance test. Children moving from nursery are given lots of one-to-ones and are encouraged to ‘come in and have a go’.
The arts and extracurricular
Not as sporty as its main local competitor but knocks it out of the park with its focus on music. We heard great things about Wednesday evening orchestra practice, with around 60 pupils getting together to make music. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay to see them, but we did sneak in on a co-curricular junior strings practice at lunchtime – obviously beginners, but great to see good numbers taking part from across the year groups. More than half of all pupils do music lessons. Lots of virtual performances during lockdown, from the lower school’s brilliantly funny rendition of ‘We Can’t Walk 500 Miles’ (we guffawed at the lyrics) to the Erasmus+ performance with six other schools from around Europe. They hope to perform collectively in Aberdeen at some point in 2022.
Music technology has its own recording studio, and the classroom was buzzing with pupils making their own music videos. We were super impressed by a pupil’s work, a 3D model that recreates the set for their latest musical, The Sound of Music, to imitate digitally the live experience – they use the same software as the BBC. Extra-curricular music tech club runs to learn how to record and use software, plus tenor club, capriccio (composition), choirs, ensembles – only fiddles on the trad side, no pipes or drums yet.
Drama has dedicated theatre. We saw the Higher class (no AH) participating in group work to recreate the experience of blindness in the Greek tragedy, Antigone. Over 90 per cent of pupils achieving As at Nat 5 and Higher. Big production each year that alternates between a musical one year, and a drama the next.
Stunning art department, with three out of four pupils going on to art school in the year we visited. Impressive WWII project by lower 7s depicting the significance of poppies in watercolour, expressive drawings by U1s and printed textiles by Higher students. GCSE has been dropped as they felt it was pigeon-holing them. ‘At GSCE they do one larger project, either expressive or design, while in Nat 5 they do both and it prepares them better for Higher,’ an art teacher told us.
Big focus on co-curricular activities. Participation is high; the corridors were busy with pupils darting to clubs at lunchtimes. A parent told us of a typical school day with clubs: ‘My daughter does PE, cross-country running at lunchtime, cheerleading [ACE Programme] and then skiing after school.’ All the usual suspects and homework clubs, plus British Sign Language, dungeons and dragons, tapestry, origami and laser tag, to name a few. You’d be hard pushed not to find something that suited.
DofE to gold, and one of only a few RAF CCF in Scotland. All get a chance to fly in a two-seater grob tutor – they go up with the pilot and learn how to use the controls. One of the three members of staff that run it, joked, ‘I stay on the ground.’
Not setting the world on fire in terms of sports, but really high levels of participation. ‘Will take inclusion and participation any day,’ says head. Netball (50 girls out of 80) and football (state school league) rather than standard hockey and rugby at competitor schools. Hockey success in Scottish Schools cup. A couple of pupil comments that they’d also like football for girls and hockey for boys. Main games field is at Milltimber, five miles away, (pupils are bussed). One parent told us, ‘I’d recommend Albyn to any parent in the NE of Scotland, but its weakness is the sports facilities – patch of grass outside and that’s it. No pool.’ They do, however, make the most of the plentiful facilities around Aberdeen for other sports, including golf and skiing.
Previously had room for eight pupils, but, with numbers always low, boarding was stopped in September 2021, a victim of the pandemic.
Ethos and heritage
Founded in 1867 by Harriet Warrack, who started teaching girls at home, advertising locally for pupils. Albyn Place (just down the road) became the school’s home in 1881, and Albyn School for Girls moved to Queen’s Road in 1925. The son of one of the gardeners at Duff House, Alexander Mackie, made the school an Aberdeen institution, with emancipated Albyn girls on Aberdeen University student council by 1907. Boys started in the junior department in 2005 and worked their way up; now an even mix of boys and girls.
School based in four attached Victorian merchants’ houses with a contemporary glass entrance that connects the building. Visitors are welcomed into a beautiful, minimalist light-filled reception area with huge contemporary artworks by students, but inside it’s a bit of a warren’s den where corridors move between the historic and the new.
Historically renowned as very academic, though Mr Horsman says it is not obsessively so and takes the view that pupils must ‘be happy and successful in that order.’ Parents say it isn’t too aggressive or competitive, and that the size of the school and smaller classes enables teachers to get to know children well. ‘It has a real family camaraderie, everyone gets behind the spirit of being in Albyn and feel proud of being there – all part of the Albyn family,’ said one parent. We felt this camaraderie too among the staff, who genuinely seemed to enjoy each other’s company. A large percentage of the staff send their own children to the school – speaks volumes. A couple of grumbles about the uniform being too traditional, one from a parent who thought having a winter and summer kilt for girls was an unnecessary expense, and the other from a pupil who would have liked the option to wear trousers.
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
Media attention around pastoral care in 2015, when it was highlighted in an inspection report that children were being pressurised to leave if exams results were poor at the end of S4. The parents we spoke to told us they were no longer aware of this and the head says, ‘We no longer use this approach and don’t have a hard and fast rule as we always look at each pupil as an individual.’
One parent told us, ‘Exceptionally good at getting to know my daughter really quickly when she joined. Kept in touch to let us know how she was getting on. Form teacher had a really close bond with her.’ Another said, ‘The personal attention we’ve had with the school the whole way along was just brilliant.’ Counsellor is available two days a week who works alongside the form teacher and deputy head.
Mr Horsman welcomed a conversation about Everyone’s Included. Experience in dealing with toxic adolescent behaviour in previous posts, but not encountered under his headship here, he told us. But is not complacent about it, with issues covered through relationship education in civics classes in S4–S6. Promotes being open and tolerant, and aware that because it’s a small school, it could inhibit anyone struggling with their identity or sexuality to come out. Likes to lead by example and take a strong moral lead.
We were delighted to see so much diversity in the school population, with around a third of pupils from BAME backgrounds. This is reflective of the wealthier international residents of Aberdeen. Zero tolerance policy for racism, bullying and misogyny.
Pupils and parents
Pupil numbers dropped back a bit because of decline in oil. ‘City is readjusting since the oil bubble burst,’ Mr Horsman says. Mixture of middle-class professionals – still oil and gas obviously. Not at all stuff, attracting fair number of first-time buyers. International and multi-cultural mix of pupils, but majority are home-grown. Some parental niggles about parking at peak times – school is considering arranging a drop-off point at Milltimber so they can be bussed in. Parents say communication has vastly improved, especially since Covid, through emails and introduction of a new app; regular newsletters and updates particularly appreciated.
Discounts of 35 per cent rebate for third and subsequent children. Bursaries available (40–45 per year) up to 100 per cent, including uniform and help with trips (apply December, entry test Jan: school carries out stringent financial checks). Be aware, too, the SQA charges exam fees, and there is extra cost for materials used in art and design.
The last word
Co-ed independent school in Aberdeen’s leafy West End with its own French school, attracting parents who prefer a smaller community school that pushes pupils academically and is small enough for all to be known as individuals. Attractive to first-time buyers; also to local and international families for its diversity, music credentials and focus on co-curricular activities.