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Why the Rethinking Education conference is happening – and why you need to get involved…

I came across an incredible quote recently, by the American evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson:

“The modern education system is like a wish in a fairy tale gone horribly wrong”.

I don’t know about you, but this really resonates with me.

Education is a wonderful thing. It is a beautiful thing. It is a hopeful thing.

I really think it is humanity’s best plan for bringing about a more harmonious, less hair-raising state of world affairs.

I also think that plan needs a little fine-tuning. And as you can see from the image above – I am not alone.

Why do we need to rethink education?

Most people associate the word education with school, so let’s start there.

The very idea of school – that society should be liberally sprinkled with communal spaces where young people can learn together under the guidance of caring, knowledgeable adults – well, what’s not to like?

If someone on a school-free planet were to be visited by a genie, they may very well wish for such a thing.

Well, ours is not a school-free planet. And although the schools of planet earth have many wonderful features – and they really do – there are also, unfortunately, many things *not to like* about the way in which our school system is currently configured.

Let’s look at three areas for improvement:

1. A million persistent absentees

The latest data on pupil absence in England revealed that there are over a million persistent absentees from school (12.1% of just over 9 million pupils).

This is an astonishingly high figure.

To be clear, a persistent absentee is someone who misses more than 10% of the school year – around 20 working days, or four full weeks of school.

Of these million-plus pupils, over 100,000 are absent for more than 50% of the school year, and around 30,000 do not attend school at all.

And remember, we’re talking about kids who are *supposed to be in school* here. There’s another 81,200 who are registered as home-educated – although, according to the House of Commons Library, “this estimate is very likely to underestimate the [real] number [of home-educated kids] because registration is voluntary.”

When a young person is absent from school without an obvious medical reason, a huge amount of time and energy is expended in dealing with it. Letters are sent home. Parents are called in. Fines are issued. Homes are visited. Educational psychologists are called in to write lengthy reports. Parents are threatened with prison sentences (and sometimes prosecuted).

Dealing with all of this is hugely stressful for the young person and their families. And yet still these young people choose to stay away. In their droves.

For some reason – often a combination of reasons – a huge proportion of young people are currently voting with their feet – even though doing so brings about many unpleasant consequences for them and their families.

Clearly, they prefer the unpleasant consequences of non-attendance to the experience of actually turning up to school.

This should tell us something very important about how these young people experience school. At the very least, it should tell us that we need to do more to understand why this is happening on such an unprecedented scale.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that all young people should be in school (although many do think this). In this country, we are fortunate in that there are alternatives to school – I’ll come on to this shortly.

What I am saying is this: We need to get together to figure out why this is happening, and whether there is anything we can do to improve young people’s experience of school so that it is something that more of them want to take part in.

2. A spiralling mental health crisis

I won’t go into too much detail on this, because everyone already knows there is a mental health crisis – we hear it almost every day. But I will share a few stats, because the situation really is profoundly concerning:

  • In 2020, one in six (16%) children aged 5 to 16 years were identified as having a probable mental health disorder – an increase from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017. The increase was evident in both boys and girls. One in six: that’s five in every classroom of 30. (source)

  • 39.2% of 6 to 16 year olds, and 52% of 17-23 year olds, have experienced a deterioration in mental health since 2017. (source)

  • In England, a quarter of 11-16 year olds, and nearly half of 17-19 year olds with a mental health disorder reported that they have self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point in their lives. (source)

  • Since 2013, suicide rates have risen among younger males aged 10-14, and among females across all ages (source)

  • In 2018-19, 24% of 17-year-olds reported having self-harmed in the previous year, and seven per cent reported having self-harmed with suicidal intent at some point in their lives. (source)

  • In 2019, the leading cause of death for males and females aged 5-34 was suicide. (source)

Each of these trends was in place before the pandemic; they are even worse now.

And it’s not just kids who are struggling. The statistics relating to teachers’ mental health are appalling also.

Each year, the charity Education Support carries out a survey called the Teacher Wellbeing Index. Their 2021 survey of over 3,000 education staff found that:

  • 77% experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to their work

  • 72% are stressed (rising to 84% for senior leaders)

  • 46% always go into work when unwell (rising to 54% for senior leaders)

  • 42% think their organisation’s culture has a negative impact on their wellbeing

  • 54% have considered leaving the sector in the past two years due to pressures on their mental health

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that schools are the root cause of all this mental ill health. While there is certainly evidence that toxic school cultures can contribute to mental ill health, there are also many ways in which schools can improve the mental health of young people and adults. As always with mental health, it’s a complex picture.

What I am saying is this: We need to get together and figure out how we can make schools less stressful – so that they alleviate people’s problems, rather than contributing to them.

3. One-third of school leavers are branded a failure, year in, year out

This year, around one third of students failed to achieve a standard pass in Maths and English at GCSE. (source)

Indeed, this happens every year.

And unless we change the assessment system, it will continue to happen.

Let me repeat that: unless we change the assessment system, one in three of the children born today – all full of hope and potential with their big wide baby eyes – are destined to leave school branded a failure.

I’m not saying we should get rid of exams, and I’m not saying that nobody should ever have to experience failure or that there should be prizes for all.

What I’m saying is this: We need to get together and ask ourselves – in a well-intentioned effort to improve outcomes by setting high expectations and applying top-down accountability pressure, have we inadvertently created a machine that brands many thousands of young people as failures – year in, year out?

And does it really have to be this way?

A fairytale wish gone wrong

It’s easy to see what Sloan Wilson was driving at.

I am of the opinion that schools remain, broadly speaking, a pretty good idea, and that the world is in much better shape since schools were invented. (Not everyone agrees with this, by the way – see, for example, my recent podcast interview with Peter Gray on why coercive schooling is “immoral and unnecessary”).

Also – the schools of today are infinitely better places than the schools of the past.

I visit schools for a living – have done for years – and I have yet to find one that isn’t run by teachers and school leaders and support staff who care deeply about improving the life chances for young people, and who work tirelessly to that end.

And although I enjoy throwing shade at politicians as much as the next person (it is our national sport, after all), I also believe that the seemingly endless stream of educational policy initiatives that we have seen in recent years – whether I agree with the policy or not – have been implemented in a good faith attempt to improve outcomes for kids.

Take issue with me in the comments if you must. My point is that despite all this well-intentioned effort – despite all the passion and cleverness and care that characterises our wonderful teaching profession – we are where we are: a million persistent absentees… a spiralling mental health crisis… a culture of enforced failure.

In a sense, we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. We’re trying to do something that’s really hard here.

But we shouldn’t go too easy on ourselves either, because we aren’t having this conversation in a moral vacuum.

The evidence is in.

Many young people and adults are suffering unnecessarily because of the way in which the schooling system is currently configured.

So let’s get together and reconfigure it.

This problem is bigger than school

So far, I’ve mainly talked about school. But as I mentioned above, education is far bigger than school.

Indeed, this is one of the problems with the education debate: it is far too school-centric. EduTwitter is a more or less steady-state system with endlessly recycled debates about school stuff: pedagogy, assessment, curriculum, behaviour. These debates are passionately held and are always driven by a deeply held concern for improving the lives of young people (even if this common cause is all-too-often overlooked in the heat of the moment).

But education is much bigger than schools, and currently I’m not sure that people who see themselves as being immersed in the education debate give nearly enough thought or attention to the many young people who don’t attend school – often because they find it so stressful that it makes them unwell.

We also need to think really hard about improving the lot of those hundreds of thousands of young people who don’t attend school: the homeschoolers, the unschoolers, the ‘school refusers’ – and those who attend alternative provisions, such as our precious (though all-too-scarce, and currently endangered) democratic learning communities.

Perhaps the main thing I've learnt through hosting the Rethinking Education podcast for the last two years is how many deeply unhappy people there are out there in ‘square peg’ families – the families of all those young people who don’t fit the system for whatever reason (often the reason is unknown – at least by the authorities) and who find themselves on the wrong side of a harsh bureaucracy with too few ideas for workable alternatives.

What can we do to improve outcomes for these young people, too?

The reason the education debate is so school-centric is that it is dominated by a small number of voices (our old friend the Pareto Principle – 80% of consequences are driven by 20% of causes). These tend to be former teachers and school leaders with “big names” who tour the conference and consultancy circuit, training teachers and selling books and attracting Twitter followers.

To be clear, there are many wonderful people in this category who do really impressive work. But education consultants with books to sell do not have all the answers, for the simple reason that they are only a small sub-set of actors within a vast ecosystem.

To my mind, the first step in unpicking the nest of interconnected problems outlined above is to understand that there are many people with skin in this game, and that they come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. But all too often, their voices are not heard or even respected within the education debate. In particular, I’m talking about:

  • Young people (those in the school system and those outside it)

  • Parents and carers (and other family members)

  • Classroom teachers (who often complain that they are underrepresented at education conferences)

  • Support staff

  • Alternative educators

  • Homeschoolers

  • Unschoolers

In her brilliant TED talk Why you think you’re right – even if you’re wrong, Julia Galef talks about the importance of having a ‘scout mindset’. Instead of having a ‘soldier mindset’, where we don our metaphorical combat gear and snipe at real and imagined enemies across the barricades of social media, we need to head for the high ground in order to develop a rich, accurate picture of the terrain.

If we’re going to get a handle on how to unpick this nest of interconnected problems, the first step is to examine the nest from every conceivable angle. This means getting together, giving *everyone* air-time, and listening deeply as they share their stories and perspectives. I also think we need to include representatives from different groups of people in the processes of policy-making and implementation – but that’s a topic for another blog.

I’m not saying we should tear the whole thing down and start again. Goodness knows, more unnecessary upheaval is the last thing the education system needs.

What I’m saying is this: We need to get together – to listen deeply to all these people about whose lives we currently know very little – and then to figure out how we might carefully, cautiously, incrementally reconfigure the system so that it works for *all* young people.

Let’s get together: an education conference with a difference

This is the mission that underpins the Rethinking Education conference. This is an organised effort to adopt a collective scout mindset – to assemble a growing community of people who, together, can work toward gaining a more complete understanding of the problems we individually and collectively face.

In this way, together we can rethink, re-imagine and re-shape the educational ecosystem so that we can help every young person find their feet, find what they love – and what they hate and want to change – to learn to understand themselves and their place in the world, and to figure out how they too might contribute to making the world a better place.

With this in mind, the #reconf22 organising committee has made a concerted effort to assemble a group of speakers you don’t usually find at education conferences. And for a first attempt, it’s not too shabby! To give you flavour, we have sessions being run by:

  • Young people (17 sessions, including a moonwalking workshop led by 10-year old Lox, who has never been to school)

  • Parents and carers (at least 6 sessions)

  • Psychologists (at least 3 sessions)

  • Currently serving classroom teachers, headteachers and senior leaders (16 sessions)

  • Alternative educators (many)

  • People whose work focuses on issues like equality and climate change

  • People who lean more toward traditionalism (at least 3 by my count, although there may be more in the closet)

  • People who lean more toward progressivism (though they might disagree with the label)

  • People who think traditionalism and progressivism are unhelpful labels that we need to move beyond (many!)

  • Education consultants with books to sell (and mighty fine books they are too!)

  • Plus we will be joined by many international friends (from the US, Australia, Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe, South Africa – to name just a few)

So. All the fun of the fair!

What’s all this about me getting involved?

This conference is a good start – but it is just a start.

Alongside the face-to-face conference on Saturday 17th September, there is also an online conference – and we have a cunning plan for how to keep the conversation going through out 2022-23 and beyond.

But if this thing is going to work, we need to bring everyone together. And everyone includes you – and the people you bring into the conversation with you. We need to reach out beyond our echo chambers and invite people into the conversation that we don’t agree with, or know much about.

In short, we each need to get involved – and to bring your friends (and perhaps even a frenemy or two!)

Here are 3 easy steps you can take to get started – each takes a matter of seconds:

  1. Peruse 88 talks for free at the online conference here

  2. Join the Rethinking Education Mighty Network, the 700-strong global community of educators, parents and carers, psychologists, researchers, young people, not so young people…

  3. Share this post on your social media channel of choice and garnish it with a lovely friendly comment (social share buttons below)

Thanks for reading to the end. Now let’s get together make good things happen!


The conference was *incredible*. But don't just take my word for it - see for yourself:

  1. "The speakers at the Rethinking Education conference brought a breathtaking array of ideas. They don’t yet share a vision for what the new education system should look like, but they are finding the power of their collective voice. I sense this won’t be the last you hear from Rethinking Education." - Conference review in SchoolsWeek

  2. 'Mainstream educators and Unschoolers: Never the twain shall meet?' - A *fascinating* blog by Tina Farr, Headteacher, St Ebbe's Primary School, Oxford

  3. The online conference - peruse 88 talks for free and see for yourself! And join the ongoing conversation in the Rethinking Education Mighty Network.

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