We are now one year away from 29 March 2019, when Britain will leave the European Union. This is arguably the UK’s largest peacetime challenge, with the aim of striking successful deals with our neighbours still in the EU and our other international partners.
However, this is not our first separation from mainland Europe. About 450,000 years ago, rising global temperatures led to a mega-flood, which cut through the land bridge that connected Britain to the continent. This reshaping of the physical landscape and creation of our coastal borders has shaped of our island’s story, our sense of identity and how we view our place in the world. Britain arguably made a success of this "original Brexit". In the 21st century, we need to pose the question of how education can help young people make a success of their future outside the EU. Amid discussions of hard or soft borders and of Canadian, Norwegian or Swiss-style trade arrangements, we should look ahead to consider what pupils might study in order for them to become successful in a post-Brexit Britain.
All subjects may make their own claims to this. However, geography is the ideal subject to help young people become confident and knowledgeable about their home nation, be outward looking and internationally engaged – and to have the skills and knowledge to understand how the wider world works. The very nature of Brexit is innately and fundamentally geographical. At the heart of the current negotiations are issues concerning borders and geopolitical relationships between nations, questions about how easily people, goods, finance and services can – or can’t – move between states and how best to address environmental issues which have no regard for national borders.
All these issues speak directly to key requirements of the geography National Curriculum, GCSE and A level, which include the study of environmental processes, global governance, migration and international trade. In its exploration of people, places and the environment, geography enables pupils to discover the key human and physical features of their own and other places, understand how places are connected and how different social and physical processes bring about change at local, national and international scales.
After March 2019, the physical landscape of our proximity to continental Europe will remain the same. Dover’s white cliffs will still stand only 23 miles away from their sister chalk cliffs at Cap Blanc-Nez. However, as schools respond to the changing social and economic relationships our of new human landscape we need to ensure that young people gain the knowledge, skills, and understanding that can help them to build successful future lives. As Michael Palin, a former president of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) said, “geography illuminates the past, explains the present and prepares us for the future. What could be more important than that?”
Steve Brace is the head of education and outdoor learning at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)