Like many I woke up to a surprise on Friday 24 June. As a politics teacher I have taught the first rule of referenda that, if in doubt, the electorate take the ’stick with the status quo’ option and vote for no change. Not this time; another political ‘rule’ rewritten in these turbulent times.
The uncertainty during the process of Brexit, while generally thought to be bad for the economy, could have unexpected benefits for schools. Education has been subject to wave after wave of government reform, all costly and disruptive and most still unproven. With the technicalities of a British withdrawal from the European Union likely to dominate the Whitehall in-tray for years to come, there may be little spare political or bureaucratic capacity for further educational reform. Brexit may thus mean educational stability by default – no bad thing with so many recent curriculum and examination reforms still to ‘bed in’.
Of course the fortunes of the education sector are undeniably tied to Britain’s economic health. A recession would reduce the government’s tax receipts and thus public sector expenditure. Already pressed state school budgets are unlikely to escape the subsequent government cuts. In the independent sector any loss of city jobs to other financial centres in the EU could have negative impacts on pupil numbers, as would increases in interest rates that put further pressure on middle class finances and reduced the affordability of independent schools.
However even dark clouds can have silver linings and a recession might boost teacher recruitment if graduate opportunities elsewhere in the economy reduced.
Much has been made of the divisions that the Brexit decision has highlighted in Britain. There were marked differences in voting patterns shaped by geography, socio-economic status, education and age. Nicola Sturgeon has said the option of a second independence referendum is now ‘on the table’, a move that could allow an independent Scotland to remain in the European Union. Much will be made of the geographic dimensions of the referendum vote; equally startling is the age correlation – with the remain vote falling as the age profile of the voter increased. Britain’s 18 – 24 year olds voted decisively to remain in the European Union by 73% to 27%; 11 – 18 year olds in my school did likewise voting by 78% to 22% to remain. Yet the young were outvoted by older generations, and this decision may add to a growing sense of inter-generational inequity. Put simply the young now have to pay for their university education in a way older generations didn’t. They will have to work longer for lower pensions than the generations above them. The tax demands placed upon the young may increase as governments struggle to meet the health and welfare costs of an aging population. We have got used to a situation where each generation was wealthier than its predecessor. However this trend is now reversing, and risks being a significant de-motivating factor for the young; ‘work harder and longer for less’ is not a great rallying call.
And now the young, who are the most pro-European and outward looking group in society, face the risk that the cultural, employment and research opportunities of the EU may be closed off to them.
I can empathise with our young people. What they need now is a positive message from our political leaders, a sense of what Britain’s future could be and an ambition to follow. Those who led the leave campaign have a duty to the young to clarify and articulate this new direction, and to involve young people in helping shape how we reach it.
As a teacher of both politics and geography, I end with a geographical thought. Improvements in transport and technology mean the world is an increasingly smaller and more intertwined place. Everything from employment and the economy to the environment is globalised; decisions in one country have an impact on its neighbours. Insular isolationism is not a viable option and we need to be part of larger entities that have the reach and resources required to tackle global problems.
However, as improvements in transport and technology effectively shorten distances, alliances no longer need to be restricted to adjacent countries. Last week, the UK voted to loosen ties to its closest neighbours. We now have an opportunity to reach out across the globe and forge alliances with countries both near and far, based on economic, cultural and political factors that transcend geography.