‘Teachers should do more to ensure that the benefits of EU membership are understood by our students’

22nd February 2016 at 12:43
Brexit and schools
Teachers are, in the majority, internationalists and understand the benefits of collaboration across different countries, writes a leading educationist

Nearly all teachers I have met have been instinctive internationalists, believing that the best interests of their pupils are served by opening up to them the opportunities that exist across the world. They believe in collaboration and partnership working, both between schools and between countries. They are Europeans as well as British. They will care little about what Boris Johnson or Michael Gove thinks, having made up their minds about Europe many years ago.

The prime minister's demands to the EU, and therefore the terms of the agreement between the UK and the EU, relate mainly to benefits and the extent to which the UK should not have to grant them to European citizens who come to live here. We must hope that the debate about the UK's continuing membership of the EU is broader than this, encompassing cultural, social and educational issues, alongside the financial and political disputes and discussions that will attract most attention in the media.

Universities have long had close ties with their European counterparts, with students intercalating a year in a university in another country for courses in science and the humanities, as well as modern languages. Many academic conferences are attended by researchers from a range of European countries. Papers are co-authored by international groups of researchers.

Schools have worked much less closely with their European counterparts. Even foreign languages exchanges between schools in the UK and other European countries have reduced in recent years as safeguarding issues have made schools more risk-averse. 

British government ministers and officials visit other countries and cherry-pick policy ideas, but EU grant-aided schemes, such as Erasmus+, involve few UK schools. UK teachers might ask, "What has the EU done for my pupils?" and the answer would be, "Not much."

The EU recognises that each country is responsible for its own education and training systems, but it still puts a lot of funding into education. Education and Training 2020 (ET 2020) is the framework for cooperation in the field, covering exchanges of best practice and dissemination of what works. Groups of experts nominated by member countries work on common EU-level guidance. Funding for policy support and innovative projects is available through Erasmus+ for "activities that promote education" for all age groups.

In 2009, ET 2020 set four common EU objectives to address challenges in education by 2020:

  • Making lifelong learning a reality;
  • Improving the quality of education and training;
  • Promoting equity, social cohesion and active citizenship;
  • Enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship.

As teachers and school leaders, let us use the next four months to find out more about these schemes and see how we can collaborate with our European partners and benefit from the funding available.

As a headteacher, I encouraged as many pupils as possible to take part in our exchanges to France, Germany, Russia, Japan and the US, believing the cultural benefits to be at least as great as the linguistic learning. 

Cultural learning

These provided great opportunities for the young people and for the teachers that led the groups, but the best international project in which the school participated was the brainchild of a Belgian school principal and it was partly funded by EU money.

The aim of the Eureka project, as it was called, was to enable 17-year-olds from six European countries – Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – to work together on common themes. Twenty young people from a school in each country gathered in Ypres for a week in the first year, another group were in Durham in the second year, and so on through the six years of the project. Each of the 120 students chose one of the topics selected for that year – environment, education, politics, etc – and prepared their contribution, working during the week with students from all six countries in their topic group. The conference languages were French and English, with students from those countries having to work in the other language, and the students from the other four countries choosing which to work in, so nobody was working in their own language. It was a wonderful educational and cultural experience for those taking part.

Between now and the EU membership referendum on 23 June – four months in which Europhiles could become pretty depressed by the quality of the debate in the media – let us put forward a strong and imaginative case for why it would be better for schools if the UK remains in the EU and why we could, and should, do much more to ensure that the benefits of membership are felt by the students in our schools. 

The continuation of school exchanges probably does not depend much on our EU membership, but let us put forward a case, on social media and in the educational press, on what the EU could do for pupils in UK schools and what our continuing membership could do to promote educational and cultural links between pupils in EU countries. Funding projects such as the Eureka project; encouraging the sharing of teaching resources, such as happens on the TES resources site; sharing expertise on school leadership; promoting schemes to overcome ethnic, religious and other types of intolerance; and much more.

Good luck, bonne chance, buona fortuna, buena suerte, boa sorte!

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion

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