'Politicians urge schools to promote compassion. What decency or compassion has there been in the EU debate?'

Schools have a moral purpose to encourage children to be honest: not to lie, exaggerate or distort. But the Brexit debate has shown that not all adults live by these values, one headteacher argues

Bernard Trafford

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Brexit or Remain? Leave or stay? The opposing concepts have been dominating the news for months. The debate may have provided fascinating material for teachers of government and politics, and maybe for economics lessons, too. But what impression has it made on the students in our schools?

I’m sure many are bored to tears, since there’s so little else being talked about in the news. (Question: how many schoolchildren listen to or watch the news anyway?)

No, I’m not asking what impression the arguments on each side of the EU debate have made on children, what reasoned or overwhelming arguments they have heard on either side. What concerns me is the opinion they are left with of our politicians, our democracy and the way it functions. Because, to my mind, at present they all stink.

And, for those of us working in schools, there are significant ironies in the way politicians have behaved throughout the whole sorry saga.

Without exaggeration or distortion

Schools have a moral purpose: through assemblies, tutorials and other pastoral sessions and, one would hope, across the entire warp and weft of school life, we encourage and train children to be honest, to tell the truth, not to lie, exaggerate or distort.

Beyond that, we insist that any argument, whether it’s about the causes of the First World War, the characterisation of Desdemona in Othello or even the process of titration in chemistry, is backed up by evidence – from contemporary writers, from the script, from what we actually observed in the course of the experiment.

In the GCSE and A-level years, and more particularly with the submission of coursework of any sort, we preach endlessly to our pupils about the need to be scrupulous about presenting only their own work, acknowledging any reference or borrowed idea and never, never plagiarising.

For the past 20 years, governments and politicians have been urging schools to promote citizenship, British values, the importance of engagement in civil society and, indeed, the need to show compassion to, and to look out for, our fellow human beings. Yet what decency or compassion has there been in this debate?

Politics at its worst

From the start, when the prime minister’s erstwhile friends stabbed him in the back in a staggering display of disloyalty, to the this week, when both sides signally failed to resist the temptation to bicker over the capital they could make from the murder of a serving MP, Jo Cox; from the so-called Project Fear of the Remain camp to Nigel Farage’s despicable reworking of a Nazi image designed to stir up fears of immigration – the young people in our care, the voters of the future, have been shown politics at its worst. Principle and decency have been abandoned in favour of manipulation, distortion and the determination to win at any cost.

I’m consciously writing this for publication before the votes have been counted. I hope the vote will be to remain in the EU, with my fervent added wish that we’ll make Europe work better by engaging in it properly instead of carping and criticising. If the vote goes for Brexit, I will have to live with that: that’s how democracy works.

Whatever the result, however, politics has sunk to a new low: as adult, voter and educator, I’m ashamed of what my generation has made of politics and of our democracy.

Perhaps the children we’re teaching now will make a better of job of it in the future. I sincerely hope they will, and (fortunately) I find the youngsters in school now so impressive and committed that I’m quite optimistic. But they won’t learn or achieve anything in politics by following the example set to them in recent months.

We are all the poorer for this experience: our democracy is diminished.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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