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An Institution Built on Sand?

By Steve Saville and Rebecca Thomas

‘Even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.’

- Jimi Hendrix

The Rethinking Education Team headed up by James Mannion, wanted a Glastonbury type of festival for Educators in the aftermath of the Global Pandemic. The idea being to explore not only what education is moving away from, but where it is going; the search for Edutopia.

Like the origin of the much-loved music festival itself that first aired in 1970 (the day after Jimi Hendrix died), drama came in waves.

From the outset of the event (held in London), it was possible that the all too familiar threat of Covid may step forward to disrupt it. Prepared for this, James and his team thoughtfully arranged all keynote speakers to prepare their messages in video form, ahead of schedule, in case the event had to be held online.

Then came the train strikes.

Train drivers taking industrial action as part of a long-standing pay dispute were going to strike for three days on the very weekend these courageous educators were planning to descend on London. If you’ve ever travelled across London, you will know how important the trains are in commuting across the historic limestone jungle. Plan B was put into action, educators doubled up and strategically coordinated car shares and transport alternatives to get themselves there on time.

All set to go.

Then, just ten days before the event was due to go ahead, the world awoke to the tragic loss of Queen Elizabeth II, whose passing brought a nation to its knees in grief. With the prospect of over a million people cascading into London for the funeral, the train strikes were called off. Extra trains were now laid on, while crowded streets swathed in flowers greeted mourners as they paid their respects to the UK's longest serving monarch.

Just two days before the state funeral, the Rethinking Education Conference did go ahead in person. It was held at Addey and Stanhope School on Saturday 17th September GMT.

Guy Claxton opens on this virtual Pyramid Stage. A perfect stage for such an important inquiry. In his talk he wonders if we are building educational institutions on sand. He talks fondly of how radical educational thinkers were in the seventies. He encourages us to ask deep questions about what the purpose of education is; what are its core purposes and values? He encourages us to ask, who benefits from education being done the way it currently is? Concerned that the current climate we have set up is one that imposes collateral damage for someone somewhere, Guy invites us to think differently about those burning questions we all have around our systems. The further you get into his talk, the more his metaphor and question of building institutions on sand becomes pronounced.

The rest of the playlist of inspirational talks that ensued provided provocative headlines for any upcoming teacher only days or professional learning opportunities. From: ‘Little Things Parents Can Do That Make a Big Difference’ where Kavin Wadhar asks children to consider ‘Is chocolate rain a good, or a bad thing?’, to ‘Why is it so hard to teach Critical Thinking?’; ‘Unconscious Bias That Stops Us Reimagining Education’ to, an authentic whole school approach to ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’; solid themes throughout, including homeschooling and how to empower teachers to be the instigators of their own PLD (shameful plug for video number 26, see it on our website here).

There was so much choice.

On reflection after the conference and going back to Guy’s question about are our ‘institutions built on sand’, our answer may be yes. Not because education will fade away with the elements; not because it is fragile and has no stable foundations; not because the texture (smooth particles) offers less resistance, it’s because:

  • Sand can be easily mobilised

  • Sand varies widely in composition and is contextual to its surrounding location

  • Sand is a finite resource that takes centuries to form

  • Most importantly, each tiny grain matters

Thank you, James, for bringing the tiny grains together to have their voices heard, your hard work was much appreciated.

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