At the end of June last year I left London for ISTE 2016, just 24 hours after the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Everywhere I went at ISTE people wanted to talk me, not about education but about Brexit. To be fair, I am a former minister and Parliamentarian in the UK, but I was supposed to be there to talk about teaching and schools.
The most common question from US educators was: “So what is going on in your country, why did people vote for Brexit? Isn’t it a bit of a dumb thing to do?”
I did not disagree but replied that I thought it had something to do with the way that politicians had been ignoring swathes of the population for too long. Their standard of living was falling and they felt powerless and insignificant against global economic forces. These people felt like they didn’t matter to those in power and finally they had an opportunity to use the power of the ballot box to be noticed.
Incidentally, I warned the people questioning me that if the UK could vote for Brexit, then the US could vote for Donald Trump for all the same kinds of reasons.
After a few days in Denver I went to a breakfast event organised by Adina Popa from Loudoun County School District, Virginia. I sat next to Angela Maiers, someone I had never met but had heard a lot about. I was thrilled to hear her message about every child mattering, and her belief in empowering people to make changes.
Against a momentous political backdrop of disempowerment, Angela had a prescient message of giving young people a voice, a hearing and a platform for contributing to change. It was inspirational to hear about the level of engagement she was achieving, both in the US and globally by encouraging children to collaborate via technology.
At the turn of this year I was pleased to welcome Angela, and partners from SMART Technologies, to London. I wanted to test how well her message and methods would go down with young people in some of the disillusioned Brexit-voting communities east of London. Could this tough audience respond, take some responsibility and start to instigate change themselves?
The results were astonishing. In just a few hours, in two different schools in Medway and Thurrock, she was getting results. And, as she broadcast her exchanges online, this was in turn generating ongoing interactions with others around the world.
This is just a beginning, but it showed me the power of believing in students and then empowering them to create change for the better.
This year I leave for ISTE in San Antonio, California two weeks after another momentous political earthquake in my country. Once again the experts and the pollsters were confounded as our Prime Minister was humiliated in a general election. So what happened this time?
All the indications are that young people registered and voted in unheard of numbers. In previous elections, less than half of under-25s voted because they couldn’t see that it would change anything. This time as many as 70 per cent cast their ballots, and as a result changed the outcome of the national election. They mattered. They will not be ignored by politicians again.
So if anyone asks me at ISTE this year why I, an English Lord, am working with Angela Maiers and SMART, the answer is simple: if politicians take people for granted these days, it doesn’t end well; the only choice is to educate people to believe in their voice, to be heard and to own the change they want. We face an uncertain future with huge challenges and can only overcome them if everyone contributes. Our responsibility as educators is to nurture that belief in every individual.
Jim Knight is chief education adviser to Tes Global, parent company of Tes, and a former Labour schools minister.