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'The impact of Brexit on education is immeasurable'

Closer attention must be paid to Brexit's effect on teacher supply, MFL and global citizenship, writes Geoff Barton

Brexit and education_editorial

Closer attention must be paid to Brexit's effect on teacher supply, MFL and global citizenship, writes Geoff Barton

One way or another, the day will come when we don’t keep hearing the word "Brexit". It will be the day on which normality in some recognisable form is restored, and when something looming so oppressively before us is finally, safely, thankfully, in our collective past.

We’re certainly not there yet. This weekend, I’ll head to Birmingham to take part in fringe events at the Conservative Party conference. We can guarantee there will be no respite from the remorseless Brexit narrative.

But amid all the political machinations, the turmoil, the woeful sense of a nation adrift, we’ve rarely talked of Brexit in terms of education. In fact – as in most areas of government – it seems as if all policy energy has been sucked out of the areas that used to matter most, channelled Brexitwards, as if nothing beyond the B-word really matters any more.

Yet, we ought to reflect on Brexit and education. Because when it happens, things will change – in big ways and in small.

'We watched young minds open'

In my early years as a rookie teacher, I was someone who took part in quite a few school trips abroad – to France and Spain – and later, as headteacher, to Shanghai and even Iraq. I saw how cultural immersion, a giddy mix of pupils’ excitement, curiosity and anxiety, frequently transformed young people. They got to eat food and see places and hear voices that were unfamiliar, to meet people not like them, but just like them. We watched young minds open.

The rise in recent years of an understandable but suffocatingly risk-averse culture has made school trips abroad a heroic act of bureaucratic stamina. As a headteacher, I was always hugely supportive of them, provided our comprehensive school could be sure that it wasn’t just the children of the well-off who could afford to participate. Thanks to visionary governors, we found ways of making sure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were on those planes, trains and coaches, too.

When we leave the EU, things are likely to get more challenging still. At present, British citizens are entitled to travel anywhere in the EU simply by presenting their passport: a French, Spanish or Italian border guard is permitted only to check that the travel document is valid and that it belongs to you. Where you plan to go and what you intend to do is none of his or her business. The is the pronounced upside of freedom of movement.

But once the UK leaves the EU, British citizens are likely to become "third country nationals" with no automatic right of admission. And even if the lumbering negotiations mean that Britons are not required to have full visas, we are likely to have to pay a 7 euro travel-authorisation fee, as well as completing an online registration form before travelling.

That is extra hassle, but a logistical obstacle to overcome. A more serious problem is how we will recruit the teachers we need and what extra damage this will do to the pressure on modern foreign languages.

Another obstacle 

The latest data from the National College for Teaching and Leadership shows that 4,795 QTS awards were made to qualified teachers from European Economic Area (EEA) countries in 2015-16 (a 10 per cent increase on 2014-15), and 2,031 to teachers outside the EEA – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US (a 27 per cent increase from 2014-15).

So these are the new teaching recruits to our schools from overseas.

What is notable is that, first, there are a lot of them and, second, the numbers are rising, presumably as a result of the difficulties in home-grown teacher supply where the Department for Education has missed its own recruitment targets in every one of the past five years.

Last week’s report from the Migration Advisory Committee proposes a common visa system for all skilled workers post-Brexit in which there is no cap on numbers and no requirement for a labour-market test. But it proposes retaining the current salary threshold of £30,000.

This will make it easier to recruit from outside the European Union, but harder from EU countries because the salary threshold is higher than many teacher salaries. So schools will potentially have to pay higher wages if they have to fill gaps by recruiting EU workers – at a time when budgets are already seriously under siege.

And this will put more pressure on the provision of modern foreign language teaching because many of the recruits from EU countries will be teaching these subjects. The last thing that we need in subjects where it is already often difficult to recruit, and where take-up at GCSE and A-level is in decline, is another obstacle.

Finally, there’s the question of our post-Brexit mindset. I hope that whatever happens, we will increase our commitment to helping our young people to view themselves as global citizens – proudly rooted in their local communities, but also excited at the opportunities that technology and travel will give them to step out into a bigger world, undaunted by the toxic narrowness of the Brexit debate.

Because if there’s one thing the past couple of years has shown us, it’s that we’re going to need the next generation to show far greater leadership, ambition and optimism than my generation.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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