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Brexit risks unravelling the ties that bind us to the world

Young people will lose out if leaving the EU leads to a slow, inexorable deterioration in international connections, writes Henry Hepburn

Brexit could sever the links that Scottish education has built up across Europe, writes Henry Hepburn

Thirty years ago next month, I was one of several dozen pale, freckly young Scots who boarded a bus outside our school in Aberdeen; 24 hours later, we were in Paris. The journey can’t have been comfortable, but all I remember is the excitement and anticipation.

I was 13, had never been outside the UK before, and loved our four days in Paris: the camaraderie of adventurers abroad; the unintelligible trill of a foreign language in its natural habitat; the jutting beauty of picture-book landmarks come to life.

If it weren’t for that trip, I might never have taken French to the end of S6. That year, our studies were bolstered by a language assistant whose name I can’t now recall (Amandine? Manon? Aurélie?). An easy coolness set her apart from our stressed-out teachers. Her presence opened my eyes to the possibilities of studying a language.

The dangers of Brexit

Without meeting her, I don’t know if I’d have gone on to study French at the University of Glasgow, a decision that led to my spending a year as an English-language assistant at a lycée in Le Puy-en-Velay, amid Auvergne’s join-the-dots extinct volcanoes. That year gave me a more international outlook and established friendships around the world that have lasted the 23 years since. But my thirst to see and understand the world traces back further, to those few days in Paris as a wide-eyed 13-year-old.

Today is Brexit Day (at least it was due to be when I wrote this earlier in the week), and it’s galling to hear teachers say that school trips to Europe may become rarer after the UK leaves the EU. Geoff Barton, general secretary of England’s Association of School and College Leaders, recently wrote in Tes that trips abroad – already “a heroic act of bureaucratic stamina” – are likely to become “more challenging still” if freedom of movement is curtailed (

Meanwhile, Tes Scotland has reported on the sharply declining numbers of modern language assistants (MLAs) in Scottish classrooms, with Brexit cited as one possible factor. Even those Amandines, Manons and Aurélies who do make it here are disproportionately found in independent schools.

Of course, Brexit is playing out a decade after the global economic crash that has steadily eroded national and local budgets – the precarious state of local authorities’ finances has also been given as a reason for the decline in MLAs – and at a time when the narrowing of options in the senior phase and teacher recruitment problems are being blamed for a squeeze on the number of pupils taking languages.

Brexit, then, risks fuelling a decline that precedes the 2016 referendum if it leads to fewer school trips, fewer EU nationals coming to work in Scottish schools and fewer Scottish students heading abroad thanks to schemes such as Erasmus.

But beyond that, who can tell the psychological impact on a generation? Brexit will not be a single event – to be celebrated as a revolution by supporters or bemoaned as a cataclysm by detractors – but a slow, inexorable shifting of the tectonic plates of international relations. How that affects the children in schools today, and how they view (or ignore) the world beyond their daily surroundings is impossible to say.

In the past few weeks, by coincidence and after years without contact, I have heard from three of the closest friends I made during that year in a secondary school in France way back in the mid-1990s. One has invited me and my family to stay with his family in Northern Ireland. Another wants us to visit her in Tasmania. Now, my daughters may benefit from those bonds formed many years ago.

This is the danger of Brexit for young people: not that a trapdoor will slam shut, but that they will suffer from a slow, almost imperceptible unravelling of international connections and understanding.


This article originally appeared in the 12 April 2019 issue under the headline “The real danger of Brexit is that it will unravel the ties that bind us”