What does Brexit mean for schools?

3rd July 2016

As if the general malaise and grieving wasn’t enough, the morning after the referendum I had the unenviable task of chairing a panel on intercultural education. Amidst the bleakness of Brexit, all I really wanted to say was: “well – we’ve failed.” But that probably wouldn’t have been very helpful. More helpful was what I did for three years as a Citizenship teacher, and (as I argued in Schools Week on Friday) right now we could do with more of that.

Understanding each other

I don’t mean schools should be running EU indoctrination classes. In fact, quite the opposite. One of the most shocking things about the referendum fall-out has been realising how little ‘remainers’ understood about ‘leavers’ (and vice versa). I can’t stop thinking about the guy I canvassed on referendum day who told me he would spoil his ballot because although he didn’t want to leave Europe, at least 65% of the population would vote remain. Like many, sat in a middle-class academic enclave in Cambridge, he seemed oblivious to people elsewhere’s frustrations and the effect this would have on their vote. On the flip-side, someone else said to me “Wow- remain? I live in Downham Market, I’ve not seen any of you folk round there!” That’s where I think there is a role for schools.

Without understanding other people’s concerns, priorities and rationales, how can we possibly make political and social decisions fairly? As a Citizenship teacher, although I never saw it as my role to espouse a particular viewpoint, I led my class through investigations of big societal issues: international intervention, Israel and Palestine, the nature of prejudice and persecution. I continually played devil’s advocate, not just putting forward contrary views but highlighting why someone might see things differently. I was always encouraging my pupils to demand and scrutinise evidence.

It’s not that the outcome would have been different if all pupils were taught Citizenship properly by specialist teachers. That shouldn’t even be the goal. However, it might be a step towards building some mutual understanding between two camps that seem frighteningly separate and divided. As the campaign progressed, ever more enthusiastic agreement amongst my friends on Facebook and increasing mocking of the other side meant empathetic dialogue with leavers became ever-less likely. That sort of division is never healthy but neither parents nor the media will build the bridges we need post-Brexit; only schools can do that.

A wider role for schools

Schools don’t just educate, they shape society. There is therefore an important role for them to play in healing the rifts exposed by the referendum. Despite a crowded curriculum and tight accountability, schools need to find time to debate big contemporary issues and to ensure staff can help pupils scrutinise and debate controversial opinions and issues.  This was Citizenship’s raison d’etre, and the time may finally have come to recognise the unique contribution it made to a rounded education and to building a better – and fairer society.