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Pausing (and rethinking) the conference

There won't be a Rethinking Education conference this year (2024). There almost was - we had a wonderful venue lined up, and we were about to announce it. But after much reflection, I came to the conclusion that we need to take a year off. There are two main reasons for this. 

Reason #1: Workload

As the Director of Rethinking Ed, although we have a wonderful steering group, coordinating the conference largely falls on my shoulders. As you might expect, organising an event for 500 people is quite the undertaking. I don't keep a tally but it takes several weeks of work, if not months. It's a big old chunk of time. And to make the conference financially viable, this is done on a pro bono basis. I'm happy to do this because I think the Rethinking Ed conference is important, and lots of people seem to agree. It provides a space for reflection and the cross-pollination of ideas between mainstream educators, alternative educators, parents and carers, children and young people, homeschoolers, unschoolers… There really is nothing else quite like it.

This said, without wanting to go into too much detail, this year I have several big projects on the go and I know I’d be spreading myself too thin if I did another conference on top of everything else. This is new for me - I'm terrible at saying no to things - but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that I just don't have the bandwidth this year.

Reason #2: Format

For all its strengths, there are a few things about the way in which the conference works that I'm not happy with, and I want to take some time to think about how we can make it even better. (Also, to consult - see below).

When I organised the first conference, I basically copy-pasted the format of similar events I've attended. We might call this the 'lots going on at once' model. Last year, we had 14 sessions running in parallel, in 6 time slots throughout the day - 84 sessions in total. 

This approach leads to a mind-boggling fact. If you do the maths and calculate all the different ways in which someone might programme their day, you find that there are 2,162,160 permutations(!)

This is both a strength and a weakness. It's great that the programme can be tailored to suit the interests of so many people. But it also means that everyone misses out on most of what the conference has to offer. And if a conference is pointing in 2 million different directions, it's pointing in no direction at all. At the end of the day, 500 people have had a nice time, drawn inspiration, made new connections and perhaps even picked up a few ideas they'll use to improve outcomes for children and young people - all of which is wonderful and worthwhile. But it all feels a bit diffuse. 

Last year, the final session was an interactive panel discussion with the whole conference which focused on how to translate ideas into action. It was my favourite session by far because it felt like it was galvanising something. I'd like to do much more of that. 

Share your thoughts on a potential new format

Also, for the last two years we've had a keynote stage running throughout the day alongside all the other sessions. The more popular keynote speakers draw lots of delegates out of the other sessions, and as a consequence some speakers only end up with a few people in their session. I hate the fact that someone would go to all the effort to prepare a session and to travel all that way, only to have a handful of people turn up. I've been there myself at other conferences, and it doesn't feel great. So I'm keen to stop that from happening. 

Had the conference gone ahead this year, we were planning something slightly different. However, one of the reasons for pausing the conference is that I have some reservations about this new format, and I'm keen to hear what people think. There's a link below to a short survey where you can share your thoughts. The steering group and I would love to hear your thoughts - even if you haven’t attended a conference previously.

This new format is shaped by two main ideas:

  • When there's a keynote, that should be the only thing happening at that time.

  • The talks should be organised around themes. This year, we were planning two:

  • Mental health and wellbeing

  • Choice, voice and agency

Here's how it would have worked:

Morning: Theme A - Mental health and wellbeing

  1. Keynote speaker A (main hall)

  2. Breakout sessions in classrooms around this theme

  3. Panel discussion (main hall) - What can be done to improve mental health and wellbeing?

Afternoon: Theme B - Choice, voice and agency

  1. Keynote speaker B (main hall)

  2. Breakout sessions in classrooms around this theme

  3. Panel discussion (main hall) - What can be done to increase voice, choice and agency?

This format has pros and cons.


  • It feels a lot more focused - more like it's pointing in a particular direction - that we'd be bringing together a diverse range of voices to think together about how to solve some really difficult problems

  • The 'popular keynote gobbling up all the delegates' problem goes away 

  • It would be easier to organise because there would be fewer speakers


  • We’d only have two keynotes and far fewer speakers than at previous conferences. One of the draws of the previous conferences is the scale of it, including the number of ‘big names’ involved. The posters look a bit like the Glastonbury poster (intentionally - see below). The proposed conference would be a lot smaller and more focused, but would therefore potentially have less appeal

  • For this reason, I expect we'd get fewer delegates - perhaps around half the number

  • There may be people with interesting/important things to say who would ordinarily speak at the conference, but no longer can because it doesn't fit with either of the themes 

If that’s not enough to think about, we were also thinking about changing the location this year - to Manchester, to be precise. Again, this comes with pros and cons:


  • It would be easier for people from the north to attend

  • We could move around each year


  • It would be harder for people from the south to attend(!)

  • Manchester’s ace, but it’s a lot smaller than London and we might struggle to shift tickets for that reason

An alternative would be to have a national conference in London and then have smaller regional events throughout the year. But that would feed back into the workload problem. 

So. Food for thought! 

The Rethinking Ed conference will be back. Until then, let's treat this ‘fallow year’ as an opportunity to put our heads together and think about how we can make it even better in the future. 

Here's a link to a short survey - Rethinking the Rethinking Education Conference - a suitably meta title, I'm sure you'll agree!

We look forward to hearing your thoughts...

James and the #reconf steering group

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