Ministers must not offload Brexit onto schools

Schools need to be able to preserve their status as places of calm, reassurance and safety. That is what we should expect of them when it comes to Brexit

Paul Whiteman

The 'aggressive' tone of the Brexit debate has inspired an event for UK schools promoting the importance of listening skills

In the past few days, ministers have issued guidance for us all in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

To be clear, the NAHT headteachers' union does not have a stance on Brexit. We’ll stick to education policy.

What we are well placed to do, though, is take a view on the quality of the guidance that is being handed down – with the massive assumption and enormous pressure from Whitehall that schools will play their part to "get Brexit done".

Given the scale of the uncertainty and the unprecedented nature of the current situation, it is difficult to imagine that any guidance the government publishes would provide complete reassurance about the impact of leaving the EU – with or without a deal.

That said, in the new 155-page document, there are just five references to schools and two references to children.

From a school leader's perspective, the lack of detail in some areas and the increased expectations placed on schools in others is a worrying combination that is sure to put schools in a very awkward position and to drive up workload.

As is so often the case, the siloed nature of Westminster policymaking means that the policy goals of one department are working in profound opposition to the goals of another. "Getting Brexit done" trumps the Department for Education’s workload challenge a hundred times over.​

While the increase in workload is one factor, there are two more that need to be addressed. While schools are publicly funded institutions and staff are employees of the state, these professionals already have enough public obligations without expecting them take on any more. Schools are places with responsibility for educating children and keeping them safe.

We are particularly keen that published guidance is amended to clarify that schools are not expected to play a role in informing staff or parents that they and their children must apply to the EU settlement scheme. This is not an appropriate task to set schools given the potential for unidentified and unintended consequences.

Schools work hard to establish good relationships with families. Any sense that the school is working on behalf of wider state objectives on immigration could put that trust in jeopardy. Schools should not be placed in the position of giving reassurances or warnings to worried citizens which could later turn out to be false.

That moves us on to NAHT’s other area of concern. Schools are being told to contact food suppliers to "make sure they are planning for the potential impacts of a no-deal Brexit", including instructions to adapt menus to allow for product substitution if necessary. They must also follow Department of Health guidance on the availability of medicines and medical supplies.

Let’s be frank: there’s almost nothing that any school can meaningfully do to mitigate the effects of Brexit, as they have no control over what will happen after 31October. 

Because of this, it is entirely wrong for the government to offload responsibility for a successful Brexit outcome onto schools and other public services. That is a hospital pass that the government should not be allowed to play. If things go wrong, schools will not be to blame.

Equally, it is impossible for schools to know just what the impacts of Brexit will be – there are plenty of Cabinet ministers who don’t know the answer to that question.

If leaving the EU is the UK government’s stated aim, it has an obligation to be clear, to be honest and to provide guidance that is worthy of the name.

It should certainly not expect the public sector to deliver anything at all without this.

It would be better to think about the school’s role in an entirely different way.

Each school community will be made up of people with pro- and anti-Brexit views. There will be diversity of opinion and of nationality apparent in just about every playground and every staffroom. The task of holding this together – with tensions apparent in some communities already, a highly charged political environment and 31October a matter of days away – will test school leaders’ skills to the max.

We have all witnessed the intemperate language, intolerant attitudes and immoderate behaviour that have characterised the Brexit debate. Our young people have been set a poor example. It’s not written anywhere in the guidance document, but schools have got an "empathy repair job" on their hands.

In times of great uncertainty, schools need to be able to preserve their status as places of calm, reassurance and safety. That is what we should expect of them. Nothing more, nothing less.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union

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