A lovely experience this week, while on a trip to Manchester for the annual conference of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA). I was visiting Chetham’s School of Music at the kind invitation of Nicola Smith, joint principal of what is the largest specialist music school in the UK. A small group of us were on a tour of the performance rooms and came across a student playing the piano in an empty studio. We listened quietly from the balcony. The playing was dazzling, moving, captivating. When he finished we asked if he was practising for a forthcoming performance. No, he said, not really: I was just enjoying the room.

There was something about this moment that encapsulated what education means. The skill and hard work over months and years, the commitment, the development of talent – and in the end the expression of it for its own sake, making music for the sheer joy and satisfaction and delight of playing.

The conference itself gave an opportunity to consider what education means, and what the education of girls means in particular. There was plenty of detail: discussions of the future of assessment and how we might work to improve GCSEs, how we might ensure each student’s diverse abilities are developed and celebrated, how we might work together to amplify our voice and support our students as effectively as we can.

But at the heart of the conference was a sense of shared mission and purpose. We exist not just to help each individual student achieve their wonderful and limitless potential: we exist to help ensure they thrive in a world that remains unequal, and by doing so, help to make it fairer and more just for everyone.

The conference could not have given a plainer answer to the question of why girls’ education. It was clear, talking to fellow heads of wonderful schools, how many challenges persist: for all the progress society has made, how many structural obstacles remain. But above all it was clear in the stories of their students, in the stories we shared from The Abbey of our own brilliant, clear-sighted, open-hearted young people, how much capacity they have to go out into the world and make it better just by being themselves.

I was reminded of a discussion with our head girls Kate and Bhaavya and some of our guests on Speech Day last week. We spoke of what girls’ schools can do: create a space where students can be wholly themselves, encouraged always to express their point of view and respect those of others, and develop the certainty and assurance that their voices will always be heard.

Kate, Bhaavya and alumnae from different generations were of one mind in what it meant to be an Abbey student: to have the confidence and belief to do and be whatever they wanted; to refuse limitations; to live life on their own terms.

In the end, it is vital that all students get the opportunity so well-expressed by the young pianist from Chethams: to enjoy the room – to learn for its own sake and in celebration of their talent. And if we can help give our students the assurance to enjoy the room, no matter where they find themselves in life; to know they belong; to be masters of their fates and captains of their souls, as was quoted at conference – then we are contributing to freedom and diversity of opportunity and to a more open and equitable world. That is the cause that unites and drives us.

Will le Fleming, Head