Brexit – Some lessons for our schools by @BST_Principal

A reflective look at how educators should view the Brexit poll

School leaders, especially those working in the international sector, are best advised to observe a certain diplomatic restraint when it comes to political comment. For most of my career, conscious of the pitfalls of expressing views that might not meet with universal approbation in diverse school communities, I have usually complied with a self-imposed gagging order. It is with some trepidation then that I now break the rule of a lifetime.

The people of the UK have made the democratic decision to leave the European Union. No matter which side of the political argument our loyalties might lie, surely none of us can seriously doubt that this is a decision that will have profound national, continental and global consequences both in the short term and long into the future. How then, as educators, should we respond?

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Brian Christian and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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As might be expected in any hard-fought political campaign, balance has been a commodity in short supply during the build-up to the vote. Today’s 24-hour rolling news coverage, the open platform provided by social media and the emotional investment of so many of the protagonists have all conjoined to amplify the shrillest voices. Considered argument, it seems, has little traction in the age of the soundbite. While I recognise that teachers have feelings too and that, for many, the UK’s decision will have triggered a quite visceral emotional response, those of us who work closely with young people have a responsibility to model balance, reason and hope for the future.

…the beleavers’ vision of a golden future of opportunity might come to pass

The immediate uncertainty means that there is bound to be short-term economic pain and, ironically, many of those who were loudest in their support for Brexit are likely to feel this most keenly; but the agents of business and commerce will find a way through the gloom and it is just possible that the beleavers’ vision of a golden future of opportunity might eventually come to pass. Compromises will be made, deals will be brokered and order will be restored – albeit a different order to the one to which we have become accustomed.

In the heartfelt words of one European long-term immigrant to the UK, a highly successful young Assistant Principal:

I hope with all my heart that the Panglossian vision that sees the United Kingdom becoming a beacon of world trade and prosperity comes to pass. I hope that the decent, hard-working folks who have blamed the EU for successive UK governments’ failures and who have bought into the loosely substantiated idea that life would be better for them outside the EU are not the first to suffer the consequences of the economic decline that started 48 hours ago. Though I remain sceptical and angry about the blatantly deceptive claims spouted by the Leave campaign, most of which are now being hastily detracted, I wish and hope that this country, in which I have invested half my life, returns handsomely on that investment, for my children’s sake.*

Politically too, I trust I am not being too naïve in imagining there are at least some grounds for optimism. Although there is still some very difficult terrain to traverse, already there are signs that one or two important messages have been heard – in London, Edinburgh and Brussels – and that there is an appetite for positive, constructive reform. However, if there is to be any firm foundation for my optimism there are substantial lessons to be learned and hard truths to be told.

Lesson 1 – they have stolen our future

We must begin by nailing the myth that somehow the older generation, the selfish baby-boomers, have somehow contrived to steal the future happiness and prosperity of their grandchildren. It is true that almost every area in which at least 25% of the population is over 65 voted Leave. It is also correct that the under 35 vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Britain remaining a member of the European Union.

How different age groups voted

It is important to recognise, though, that behind these figures lies an unpalatable truth: many of the younger Britons complaining that they had their European future stolen from them will have spurned the chance to have a say in that future. In the last UK General Election the estimated turn-out among over 65 voters was 78% while for those in the under 25 age bracket it was a mere 43% – early indications suggest that the statistics for the referendum may not be significantly different. Time and time again I hear young people complain that they have been disenfranchised and there are times when I sympathise, but this really was an occasion when everyone’s vote mattered and it appears (and I sincerely hope that the pundits are wrong on this) that half of the country’s youngest voters may have turned their back on the opportunity to make their opinion count.

Estimated turnout by age

As educators we have to accept some of the blame for this young voter apathy. If we do nothing to engage our students politically, to encourage them to play an active part in their society, to help them develop intelligent objective opinions on the important issues of the day, then we are complicit in their disenfranchisement. It is all too easy for cynical siren voices to repeat the lazy mantra that politicians are elitist and out of touch, that the system denies the individual a voice, that a single vote counts for nothing – and it has to be up to us to dispel some of that cynicism. Schools must do more to enthuse and excite future generations of voters.

Lesson 2 – the uninformed vote played a major part in deciding the outcome

According to ORB** research published during the month before the referendum well over a third of voters (37%) said that they didn’t know very much or knew nothing at all about the issues surrounding the UK’s EU membership. Considering that a record number of people registered to take part in this referendum and that the eventual turn-out was over 70% this ought to give us real cause for concern. The eventual winning margin for theLeave camp was just short of 4% but only a week or two before the vote almost 40% of people claimed that they felt uninformed about what they were voting on. This means that the uninformed vote played a major part in deciding the outcome.

Here is something even more alarming. Around the same time in the campaign Ipsos MORI decided to test the public on some of the fundamental issues: it found that the majority of respondents were totally wrong about most of them. For example, on the question of Turkey’s membership of the EU, 45% believed that this was being fast-tracked, while even more voters (47%) were convinced that Britain really does send £350 million to the EU each week. The majority of respondents thought that European immigrants made up 15% of the British population (around 10.5 million people) while in reality it is 5% (around 3.5 million). Staggeringly, nearly four in ten of those tested thought that the number of children in other countries in the EU receiving Child Benefit from the UK was at least forty times the actual level.

How can this be? Surely we live in an enlightened age where all the information we could ever wish to have is no more than a click away? The truth, of course, was always out there if we were prepared to look for it and capable of separating it from the inevitable noise of a hard-fought campaign. It seems, though, that too many of us are prepared to see only what we want to see – and too willing to blame others when our blinkered approach leads us down a path we should never have taken. ‘But you should have told us,’ we wail.

More than ever before it is incumbent upon those of us who work with young people to give them the means (and the will) to exercise discernment, to question and to think critically before leaping to conclusions. Above all, we must impress upon them their responsibility to do the spadework before voicing an opinion on a subject they know little or nothing about.

Experts have been given a rough ride in recent weeks:

I think people in this country have had enough of experts… Michael Gove

There is only one expert that matters and that’s you, the voter… Gisela Stuart

This should set alarm bells ringing: the glib dismissal of those who have been prepared to work to build knowledge and expertise only serves to legitimise the shallow chatter of the soapbox pundits on Facebook and Twitter who shamelessly claim expert status without first taking the trouble to grasp the facts. Isn’t it the duty of every teacher and school leader to encourage students to recognise and to value, and to strive for expertise?

Lesson 3 – A force for good, a force for ill or a mixed blessing?

The third and final lesson (although I feel sure that others could suggest many more) is the most crucial. All schools – and international schools in particular – must fight against intolerance and celebrate the diversity of an interconnected multicultural world. The words of Atticus Finch, that stalwart of the GCSE English Literature syllabus, have never been more relevant:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

In the wake of the referendum, the pollster Lord Ashcroft produced a series of illuminating and, in some cases, rather disturbing charts digging down into the detail of voter motivation. This one contains few surprises but it does underline the polarisation of opinion in the UK: 81% of voters who believe multiculturalism to be a force for ill opted to leave the European Union, while 71% of those who consider it to be a force for good voted to remain. Perhaps of more concern were similar returns on issues such as social liberalismfeminism and the green movement.

Brexit - article photo 3

A willingness to see the world from the perspective of another, to appreciate and respect ideas and values that are different from our own, seems to me to be the hall-mark of human decency. It is self-evident that, if a fractured Britain is to knit together again, the starting point has to be recognition on both sides of the Brexit divide that the other half of the country has a different view. It is equally clear that Remainers and Brexiteers alike must unite to condemn the worst excesses of a prejudiced minority who appear to feel that the vote has licensed them to behave in a way that is abhorrent to the vast majority of UK citizens who have no truck with racism.

The dangerous post-truth populist politics of Farage and Trump, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders continue to threaten, but in the aftermath of Brexit I have to believe that there is now wider recognition of that threat and a growing repugnance towards their policies.

And herein lies the most persuasive reason for optimism. Every day I am surrounded by children, young men and women who live and breathe multiculturalism, who demonstrate in all that they do and say that for them it is the person that matters not the gender, nationality, skin colour or faith.

You might take the child out of Europe but you cannot drive him or her out of the wonderful, diverse global society we are all privileged to live in today.

*Jose Picardo, Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School:

**Opinion Research Business (ORB International)

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