'Brexit is the most important political moment in Europe since the Berlin Wall came down'

Sam Freedman, executive director of TeachFirst, argues that Brexit highlights the geographic divides that consecutive governments have failed to address

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Just one day on and the vote for Brexit is already looking like the most important political moment in Europe since the Berlin Wall came down. We’ve seen the Prime Minister resign; a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn; calls for new referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland; and markets in turmoil across the globe. The full consequences will not become clear until we know more about how the new relationship between the EU and the UK will look.

While that is being worked out there will be some important short-term affects for schools. Politics, as usual, will largely stop while party leaderships are contested and EU negotiating strategies are formulated. So any policy in development that is remotely contentious – such as the new school funding formula or initial teacher training reform – will be put on hold.

It is also pretty likely we will have a different ministerial team in October when the new Prime Minister is appointed.

A silver lining is that schools may find it easier to recruit trainee teachers looking for a stable job in uncertain times.

A divided nation

But it feels parochial to worry about such things after a decision of such significance. The vast geographic and demographic divide exposed by the referendum is a public policy problem that goes way beyond the immediate impact. 

The single biggest predictor of how people voted was their level of educational qualification – fewer than 30 per cent of those with a degree voted out. And the areas where Leave hoovered up their votes – South Wales, the East of England, Yorkshire towns – correlate almost exactly with the educational “cold spots” identified by the Department for Education in its recent white paper.

These parts of the country, characterised as “left behind” by academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, have been in economic decline for decades as traditional local industries have disappeared. The lack of prospects has led many of those who do have qualifications to leave and also made it extremely hard for schools to develop the ethos of aspiration that drives high performance in places like Tower Hamlets and Hackney. The economic performance of South Yorkshire since the turn of the century is roughly equivalent to that of Greece.

International issue

And this problem of growing regional inequality is not unique to the UK. PISA is usually used to compare different countries but it also shows that, in many OECD countries, within-country gaps are growing. Massachusetts is one of the highest performing jurisdictions in the world, whereas southern US states perform at the level of developing world countries. Pupils in northern Italy are almost two years ahead of their counterparts in the south.

For policy-makers, breaking this cycle of growing disparity is a huge challenge. High-quality schooling is absolutely key but it’s not enough if well-qualified students just leave for the nearest big city at the earliest opportunity. Those of us who care about social mobility need to look beyond the individual and towards supporting communities. We need a completely new economic strategy – better transport links; big incentives for companies to base themselves in these communities and invest in the local workforce; universities opening new campuses so that talented students don’t have to leave home; and so on. All of these things have been tried to some extent but they’ve too often been tokenistic and uncoordinated. Whoever forms the next government should make this the centrepiece of their domestic policy agenda.

If we let this geographic inequality grow – and the economic fallout of Brexit could make it even worse – then the anger and despondency that motivated the Leave vote, and the rise of Ukip, will only worsen. The consequences of that don’t bear thinking about.

Sam Freedman is executive director of TeachFirst

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