Enlightened Education

Posted on: 14/10/2022

Last week I returned to my homeland in Scotland, to attend the annual Heads’ Conference in Edinburgh, which this year brought together 1000 Headteachers from IAPS (Independent Association of Preparatory Schools) and HMC (Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) Schools. Returning to Edinburgh, where I spent four years studying at University, always fills me with great pride and nostalgia for a city which ignited my love for education and teaching.  

The theme of the conference was ‘Enlightened Education’ and there was no better city to host a conference with such a theme. Edinburgh was very much regarded as a centre of enlightenment during the 18th century, when the New Town sprung up to provide changes in law, philosophy, science, literature, the arts, engineering and architecture. Observatories were built, advancements in medicine and microbiology were shaped and Edinburgh became a pioneering beacon of excellence in education. Schools - grammar and independent - were founded by mechant companies to encourage liberal thinking and intellectual curiosity. Edinburgh’s New and Old Towns now sit alongside one another to remind us of fusion, heritage and modernity.

The first keynote speaker of the conference, Marc Randolph, the founder of Netflix,  articulated the purpose of education in the spirit of enlightenment. He wants young people to be energised to deal with the uncertainties of the world. As we know from the last few years in particular, we cannot predict the future. So, with a willingness to make mistakes (and learn from them) and a desire to see all problems as having solutions, our pupils will need to be real world ready.

Professor Gabriell Finn from the University of Manchester is leading a university-wide review of assessment and imparted the following key messages.

  • Factual recall is no longer the focus, and shouldn’t be. There is no link between this and preparing pupils for the real world.

  • There has been a 16000% increase in the number of students plagiarising their assignments.

  • GCSEs and A-levels are very far removed from where universities are starting to focus assessment: students collaborating and submitting their own websites rather than tests.

  • Technology, in particular AI, needs to be a dominant factor in any reform of assessment.

As fellow Heads discussed some of the points raised by the speakers, I felt so proud of what we are doing here at St. Helen’s College. We have a very balanced curriculum, skills and knowledge based, but our pupils' learning skills are far more in line with what universities wish to move towards. This was noted recently by one of our ex-parents who is a university lecturer as she reflected on what her daughter was already achieving with our flipped classroom model of teaching. She was somewhat overwhelmed at how efficient her daughter was as a learner in Year 6 in comparison with some of the first year university pupils she had encountered!  

Over the years we have heard the word ‘tolerance’ being used when we discuss diversity. This word should now be replaced with ‘celebration of’. I truly believe that it is one of our defining features at St. Helen’s College that we are such a diverse community - and this extends to neuro-diversity too (a point which was emphasised by Rory Bremner in his most humorous after dinner address).

Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson further emphasised this ‘celebration’, which 30 years ago would have been labelled as tolerance, as she recalled her experience of growing up as a wheelchair user (it was only because her Headteacher refused to adhere to the local authority guidelines that she was able to attend a mainstream school). She made the point that discrimination is taught and not a learned behaviour, and we must all focus on this - not just for the sake of our individual pupils but for humanity as a whole.

Sarah Brown, Founder and Chair of ‘TheirWorld’ and the Executive Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education (also once inhabitant of 10 Downing Street) shocked delegates by reminding us that by 2030, half of the world’s young people will not have the privilege of attending school. This seems unbelievable, not least against the backdrop of the UN’s Sustaninable Development Goals, created in 2017 with the goal of achieving them all by 2030.  Sarah emphasised that for pupils to be real world ready, there is a moral imperative for them to learn how to look after their world and each other.

Throughout the conference, keynote speakers emphasised that the fundamental aim of education should not be focused around end-point assessment, but the development of a child’s relationship with others, and, through this, the creation of powerful, ethical communities, focused around a force for good.

Nicola Benedetti, world renowned violinist, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Festival and founder of the Benedetti Foundation, used the impact of choirs and ensembles to illustrate this point. Within an orchestra or choir, there is no hierarchy and, in creating music together, people are sharing in one humanity.  Music played a role throughout the conference and reminded us of the transformational impact of music in everyone’s lives. There is a moral obligation for all young people to be exposed to this form of deep connection and communication. 

I hope you can see how passionate I am feeling about many of the topics discussed at the conference. As I reflect on this first half term of St. Helen’s College life I am sure that you will agree that our pupils have demonstrated their own contribution to an enlightened education in so many ways, including:

  • the wonderful Harvest assemblies and donations;
  • the musical recital;
  • the many sporting fixtures;
  • the various school trips to interesting venues;
  • ​The Children’s Trust Charity Concert where our Chamber Choir performed;
  • the TCS Mini London Marathon;
  • the visit to the Woodlands Care Home by a group of our musicians;
  • STEAM Day and
  • St. Helen’s Day.

I could keep listing - there is more, much more!

Thank you for all your support during this first half term. It has been a wonderful beginning to this academic year and I wish you all a restful and energising half term holiday!

Ms Drummond