Enlightened Education Conference – Chair Melvyn Roffe’s Speech

Lord Provost, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues and Friends. Welcome to Enlightened Education the 2022 joint HMC/IAPS Conference for Heads.

Welcome to Edinburgh, the city of the Enlightenment.

Historians debate why this not very large city, in a frankly rather cold and unfashionable corner of northern Europe, had so much impact on the thought of Europe in the eighteenth century and hence of the world to this day.

The legacy of the Enlightenment is certainly not difficult to spot in the Edinburgh of the twenty-first century.

You can appreciate it in the architecture, you can hear it in the variety of voices in the streets; you can read it in the books that were inspired here, and discern it in the thinking that was developed here, the art that was made here and the science that was pioneered here.

At Festival time, you are overwhelmed by it, as ideas, words, music, drama and just plain weirdness from all over the world finds expression here.

And every day, the legacy of the Enlightenment permeates the soul of Edinburgh most profoundly through education. Through four universities, an array of cutting-edge research institutes and a plethora of learned institutions.

And of course, through the City’s many excellent schools: primary and secondary, prep and senior schools, specialist and generalist, boarding and day schools, state-funded, grant aided and independent; the latter educating something over twenty-five per cent of the children and young people of this city.

Before the pandemic, education was the single largest contributor to the regional economy. Now, it is education that is set to power us into the post-pandemic future.

But education, the acquiring of skills, knowledge and understanding by one generation from the one before, is not only an act which confers economic advantage, it is also an act of hope.

In a dark world, education reassures us both that the work of today is not futile, and that the promise of tomorrow is not empty.

We miss the point if we think that the value of education is only about the wealth of nations; it is overwhelmingly about the light of the human spirit.

Today is World Teacher Day. I am prepared to bet a significant sum of money – perhaps as much as £1 – that everyone in this auditorium will have a story to tell about a teacher who made a difference to you.

Perhaps they inspired you, perhaps they comforted you, perhaps they admonished you (obviously very, very unfairly). But they made a difference.

The first teacher I ever knew was my own mother. As is often the case, I am not the first, nor the only, teacher in my family.

My mum obviously made a huge difference to me, but I am also vividly aware of the difference she made to other children.

Thinking about it, she must have been amongst the first teachers to embrace the new research about learning difficulties that was developed, here in Edinburgh and elsewhere, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Later, she combined this work with being a home teacher for children who were ill – sometimes with life-limiting conditions.

It was demanding work; often overlooked and always poorly paid. But goodness, it was valuable.

Even today, middle-aged men and women who were once Mrs Roffe’s pupils keep in touch with her.

I am sure they remember what she taught them, but they will also remember how she bolstered their confidence and the faith she had in them, often when others didn’t. They will remember how she kindled the human spirit within them, sometimes when its light was very dim indeed.

Today is the day that teachers all over the country and right around the world should stand tall and accept the thanks of all who have benefited from their work. That is, of course, everyone all over the country and right around the world.

I hope that our Conference will itself be an opportunity for the human spirit to flourish within each of us.

In the main conference programme, through speakers and discussions which critique as well as celebrate the concepts of Enlightenment thinking.

In the opportunities to talk to each other and learn from each other across our two associations, and on Friday from friends and colleagues from state funded schools attending the Edinburgh Open Education Conference.

And not to forget the Conference Fringe which will provide time to chill and have fun; headspace for heads and nourishment and challenge in equal measure for body, mind and spirit. Even our Conference Service will be something distinctly different. Enlightening, I am sure. Challenging, perhaps.

This will not be a Conference – at least I hope that this will not be a Conference – where everyone agrees with everyone else. I don’t want to spend three days listening only to people who think like me. If the human spirit is to spark, it needs both fuel and friction.

I believe that those of us who have the privilege of leading independent schools have a particular responsibility to think differently, be prepared to take calculated risks and to be professionally dissatisfied with the status quo.

So many of our schools were founded by individuals, faith communities or other groups who were in some ways, often in major ways, at odds with the prevailing ethos of their time. If not, they were founded by those who could see that in education, usually in a broad holistic Enlightenment sense, lay a better future for their communities.

By definition, these were not people who sat around worrying only about how best to comply. They were people who sought ways to inspire with new institutions, new thoughts, new ways of doing things. They were often working outside the orthodoxy of their day and sometimes in direct opposition to the wishes of local or national government.

Increasingly today independent schools are mobilising their capacity to think and act independently of the state and are applying it in ways that make a radical difference to society, often in areas of profound social and educational disadvantage.

There has been a very significant refocusing of bursary support to ensure that it acts as a catalyst for community resilience and regeneration, as well as for the benefit of individual young people.

There has been an increasingly diverse and imaginative range of creative partnership projects which energise schools and the learning opportunities they can provide.

This creativity of thought and action is taking place not because it is mandated by law or government, but because good ideas are what school leaders and teachers are good at coming up with. We see the need and do our best to meet it.

If necessary, we will ask for forgiveness, but we will probably not seek permission. Our role is, above all, to make things better for children and young people. And to enable the human spirit to flourish.

So, welcome all to this extraordinary city and to what I hope will be an extraordinary conference. Until someone tells me that it isn’t true, I’m going to make the claim that this is the largest conference of independent school heads ever gathered together in one place in the UK – and conceivably anywhere in the known universe.


5 October 2022