Brexit: ‘Teachers must dispel the myths about themselves, their pupils and their parents, and Europe itself’

Responding to a piece by former ASCL general secretary calling for teachers to defend to EU, the director of the Institute of Ideas takes a very different tack on the forthcoming Brexit referendum

Claire Fox

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Another week, another bizarre Prevent story: A Hampshire pupil was questioned by anti-extremism police for looking at Ukip’s website. Teachers from Wildern School concluded that visiting such politically-incorrect websites dodgy enough to report their “safeguarding concerns” about 15-year-old Joe Taylor to the cops.

Before we file under “you couldn’t make it up”, the incident reminded me of the incredulous tone that has crept into debates about the forthcoming EU referendum. I haven’t been reported to Prevent yet, but when I tell anyone working in education that I am likely to vote Brexit, I am treated as something of a category error, guilty by association of lining up with a party of “fruit cakes, loonies and racists” (to quote David Cameron’s infamous, disdainful quip about Ukip members). After all, it is inferred, surely all sensible, educated people are pro-EU?  Conversely, there is a widespread assumption amongst far too many in education circles is that Brexiters are ignorant, uninformed, backward rednecks who haven’t read enough European novels, who don’t understand European history. But this says as much about the prejudices of Remainers as it does about any factual demographics about voter intentions. It also reveals some rather unsavoury attitudes towards those considered to be outside the virtuous circle of educated opinion. 

Elitist contempt

A recent Economist article entitled A tale of two cities” described Britain’s great European divide as “really about education and class”, arguing the more qualifications someone has, the more pro-European he or she is likely to be. The article contrasts Cambridge, “a bastion of Europhilia”, a city which “bears the hallmarks of an economy in which one in two has gone to university” and with nearby Eurosceptic Peterborough, “visibly a city of school-leavers”. A city of school-leavers? How do we know that? Because its streets are full of “betting shops, pubs and hair salons…Polish delis and supermarkets”.  God, you can hear the elitist contempt dripping from the pen.

Even if YouGov survey findings are true (these days a stretch), that those educated only to 16 oppose EU membership by 57 per cent to 43 per cent, but among graduates it is 38 per cent to 62 per cent, what does that denote? Why is it assumed that “those five years of study between 16 and 21” creates more informed, broadminded decision-makers? When the article describes how being a Eurosceptic in a university city such as Cambridge is a lonely business, detailing one such’s forlorn attempts as being greeted with ridicule, “laughter and sarcastic applause”, the inference is that all bien pensants will of course vote to Remain. But perhaps this is more a worrying sign of a conformist, herd-like, lack of critical-thinking at a top university, rather than evidence of thoughtful well-informed undergrads. And perhaps Brexit-leaning students may feel rather shy about expressing their ‘out’ views to pollsters, if doing so means they will be treated as social pariahs by their smug intolerant peers.

Distasteful snobby generalisations

More significantly, since when has school-leaver versus graduate become a signifier of being politically progressive? There is something distasteful about the snobby generalisations that lurk around the EU debate, with In campaigners claiming some moral high ground when they boast of having the best-educated on their side. On that basis, maybe we should make suffrage dependent on GCSE results. Lest we forget (ask any history teacher): those freedom fighters, from the sans-culottes to the founders of trade unionism, whose struggles created our modern, liberal Europe, were often uneducated and – shock horror – sometimes illiterate. You really don’t need A levels or a degree to be smart, rational, insightful, politically shrewd, brave, forward thinking. Teachers may well want their pupils to acquire as many qualifications as possible, we all believe education is a good thing BUT educators of all people should reject the idea that those who do not perform well academically, are stupid oiks, whose views can be written off. 

And when it comes to caricatures, teachers themselves must be wary of being pigeon-holed. John Dunford, former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, started his pro-EU article in this esteemed publication, with the observation that: “Nearly all teachers I have met have been instinctive internationalists…Europeans as well as British…[who] care little about what Boris Johnson or Michael Gove thinks, having made up their minds about Europe many years ago”. But, John, I am an internationalist, more European than British and pro-Brexit. Being opposed to a top-down EU bureaucratic elite undermining popular democracy doesn’t make me a parochial ‘Little Englander’ who wants to ban school foreign exchange trips. And if on one side there’s Gove, Boris, Ukip, on the other there’s David Cameron, big business, and the generals. But surely all that means is that teachers should think for themselves rather than making decisions based on a rather immature assessment of who is in whose gang. Please let’s aim for a more grown up, nuanced debate before 23 June. What’s more, teachers should take the lead in dispelling the myths associated with simplistic caricatures about themselves, their pupils and their parents and Europe itself. 

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Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher 

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Claire Fox

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