Today’s post is by NAEE trustee, David Dixon, long-serving headteacher and author of Leadership for Sustainability: saving the planet one school at a time (Crown House Publishing, 2022).

David reflects on his visit to the Festival of Education at Wellington College back in July. As with all our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily those of the Association.

I applied for and was accepted as a speaker at the 13th annual Festival of Education. This is a massive event of some 5000 delegates and over 300 presentations on a wide variety of educational issues in all sectors. These included titles such as ‘Supporting young trans and gender questioning people in school’, ‘The importance of professional development and training for teachers’, ‘The principals of effective SEND governance’ and ‘Staff well-being in the teaching working force- an evidence-based approach to addressing challenges’. 

The festival had a selection of strands covering topics including Artificial Intelligence, Ofsted, Cognitive Science, SEND and sustainability. Of course, the last strand is where I came in. I had two 45 minute slots; one giving an overview of my book ‘Leadership for Sustainability’ and another more specifically describing the characteristics of leaders for sustainability and why we need many more of them. I was also given a 20 minute lunch-time book signing slot.

The festival was founded and continues to be hosted by Wellington College in Berkshire. The college was built as a national monument to the first Duke of Wellington, in whose honour it is named. It educates roughly 1,200 pupils, between the ages of 13 and 18 and currently charges £15,030 per term, or £45,090 per annum. The school is a member of the ‘Rugby Group’ of 18 British public schools. This group includes Charterhouse School and Rugby school and is similar to a group formed by Eton College. It is also a member of the ‘G30 Schools’ group. This association includes 50 schools from 20 countries, with membership by invitation and a vote of existing members. G30 schools are chosen on two criteria: the reputation of the school and the reputation of the school’s leader. The college also has an overseas network called Wellington College International. This comprises 7 schools overseas, in China and Thailand, currently educating over 5000 students. It also has ambitions to organise an international festival somewhere in the world, so watch this space.

The main sponsor of the festival is the examinations board AQA, which like Wellington College is a registered charity. It has taken over many of the smaller exam boards over the years, making it the largest in the sector covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has a statutory duty to comply with government regulations on how subjects are examined in schools, FE and HE.

As with other major festivals and conferences there was a wide range of education service providers large and small. These included Ofsted, Education Development Trust, National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), BBC Bitesize, Pearson and my own publisher Crown House. 

On the face of it, sustainability was given a high profile as indicated by the aforementioned strand, but also through the sponsorship of Cambridge University Press & Assessment. This provided a large marquee in the centre of the festival stalls (labelled ‘Sustainability Hub’) which housed about 10 organisations who delivered some form of environmental/sustainability service for schools. These included SEEd, WWF, Green Schools, Field Studies Council and Chester Zoo. They also ran several events, the most notable being an audience with Chris Packham. Another sustainability talk was described as:

“Closing the Green Gap, which looked through different lenses – the student, the university, the teacher and the curriculum creator. The key themes that emerged were curriculum change, the need for honesty about the challenges facing education and giving young people the knowledge, confidence and the power they need to make change happen in a timely way.”

So, what did I make of it all? Firstly, you have to admire the slickness and professionalism of the whole event which would rival any large corporate business event. In fact, it was a large corporate business event and the people organising, exhibiting and presenting did a first class job for their respective organisations. The presentations, workshops and discussions highlighted outstanding practice across the piste of education and also featured some thought-provoking pieces about what the aims of education need to be for the ‘modern’ world. Attendees, including myself, picked up valuable knowledge and insights into the minutiae of issues which all schools have to grapple with on a daily basis. The clientele seemed to be mainly from the academies and the private sector, rather than local authority controlled schools, although this is only an assumption on my part because the breakdown of who attended didn’t include this detail. Perhaps it’s closeness to the end of the summer term meant that many state schools couldn’t attend (although Wellington gave support for state school attendees as befitting their charitable status). Wellington and other public schools had already broken up for the summer.

Although sustainability was literally given centre stage in the largest marquee, it wasn’t well attended. This was partly because the weather was hot and sunny and the roof of the  structure was transparent. This caused soaring Greenhouse Effect temperatures, which I found rather ironic. Also, there were fewer sustainability organisations in evidence than last year, so things looked a bit sparce.

When looking at the presentations and events within the sustainability strand, I counted 14 out of a grand total of 301 (two of these were mine). One of my presentations about the book had about 20 attendees and the other about leadership for sustainability had 5. My book signing session had one. This is partly explained by a clash with an Eddie Izzard session. I had a similar problem last year when my one and only presentation had 3 in attendance because it clashed with Michael Morpurgo. No competition!

There were useful sessions on climate change in the curriculum and making your school grounds biophilic, but these all seemed side issues in the overall jamboree. If you look at the Cambridge University quote above there is the perennial missing link of ‘leadership for sustainability’, something I flagged up in my presentations, showing the NAEE Manifesto as an excellent example of a framework of reference for those who wanted to explore further.

The festival oozed decadence and professional success and as I sipped my G&T at the VIP reception, I felt a pang of guilt that most hard-pressed colleagues in state schools would never have the opportunity to attend such an event. Yes, all educators have considerable challenges, but some are more equal than others when it comes to rising to them (due to the degree and nature of the challenges and the accessibility of resources to deal with them).

But one mustn’t be cynical and I gave much thought on how to approach sustainability differently in order to engage a broader audience. One way forward for this festival and most other high profile education conferences is not to make sustainability a stand-alone strand, but to make it integral to all other strands. For example, subjects such as ‘School Improvement ‘, or ‘Well-being’, or ‘the Future Curriculum’, can be delivered very effectively through sustainability (or to use the current jargon, ‘through a sustainability lens’). In fact, I think every single session at the Festival could have included an embedded sustainability strand, proving that it really is the only way out of our present ‘Age of Stupid’.

But all this begs the question of ‘what is sustainability?’ It’s a moveable feast and as I say in my book defining it can be like pinning jelly to a wall. This is where organisations such as the NAEE come into their own by showing that sustainability isn’t just the ‘Green Stuff’ or ‘Climate Change Curriculum’; rather, it’s about educating people about their urban and natural environment locally to globally and back again. This Environmental Education includes social/cultural and economic ways of living that deliver social justice and a high quality of life for all and not predicated on unsustainable consumption. It does this by encouraging critical thinking and collaboration and provides knowledge, skills and wisdom for decisive actions. Through this, learners and educators develop the agency relevant for the future…. and it makes learning fun! Until all this is properly addressed consistently across high profile education events, I fear education will still be part of the problem rather than the solution to our existential ills. Although the Festival of Education seemed to welcome ‘alternative thinking’, most of it was really a version of getting the status quo to ‘work better’ and to me this suited most delegates because they were generally navigating the system very successfully and gaining personal success from this process. By incorporating sustainability as a fundamental element of all sessions, more challenging questions would arise leading to more expansive and truly alternative visions for the future. I’m not religious, but I think the Rev Nick Bains, quoting Jesus, put this in a nutshell. He said that ‘Human Beings need to be drawn by a vision and not driven by a closed mind’. I fear that many closed minds are masquerading as visionary and that many in education need to be breaking out of their comfort zones for the good of all and not for the good of an already prosperous minority


David can be contacted at

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