Schools will be left 'exposed' by Brexit

The leader of Scotland's 2016 Remain campaign warns withdrawal from the EU will have as-yet-unanticipated consequences

John Edward

Education institutions ‘left exposed by Brexit’

“And the danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.”

So said Sylvia Plath, and those words spring to mind as the latest of many crunch moments on the UK’s EU membership approaches, with the Withdrawal Agreement being placed before the House of Commons.

For all that some in the political sphere appear to be relishing the cut and thrust of ideological flyting, the rest of the world has to get on with preparing, provisioning and predicting – and time is not on their side. Unless a ratified withdrawal agreement establishes another date, all EU primary and secondary law will cease to apply to the UK from 30 March 2019. The UK will then become a “third country” in relation to the EU.

Educational institutions are as exposed by the implications as those in any other sector. This is as true of day schools in Scotland's state and independent sectors as it is of those international boarding schools that, unlike in England, do not exist in the state sector.

Free movement

The Single European Act of 1992, enshrined the “four freedoms” of movement in goods, services, capital and workers. While the first three have proved relatively uncontroversial within the UK, the free movement of workers (often, incorrectly, termed the free movement of people) became increasingly contentious after the accession of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 2004 and 2007. To date, UK government policy remains focused on bringing the free movement of workers to an end. By implication, this requires departure from the single market and therefore an end to the UK’s membership of the wider European Economic Area (EEA).

Outside the single market, the introduction of some form of visa requirement might by itself discourage a number of applications to school posts from EU/EEA countries. Figures for 2018 from the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) already show a substantial drop in applicants from EU countries. Only 14 EU teachers applied for GTCS registration up until 30 June 2018 – down from 128 in 2015, 159 in 2016 and 186 in 2017. At the same time, the shift of focus away from recruitment in Europe may potentially open up availability for work visas for citizens of non-EEA countries, such as those in the Commonwealth.

There are already significantly fewer language teachers in Scotland than in 2008. There were 722 French teachers last year in the state sector, compared with 1,070 in 2008. Over the same period, the number of German teachers has almost halved, to 100 (the number of Spanish teachers has increased from 64 to 107). At the very least, EU withdrawal poses a real challenge for the Scottish government’s admirable 1+2 modern language ambitions.

Professional qualifications

A key issue for teaching staff following withdrawal will be the recognition of teaching and other qualifications from other jurisdictions. The general system of recognition of professional qualifications, including teaching, enables the free movement of professionals within the EU. Since 1997, the UK has recognised more than 142,000 EU professional qualifications under the relevant directive, and more than 27,000 decisions to recognise UK qualifications have been taken in other member states.

Recognising existing qualifications of residents and frontier workers, and those in the process of being recognised, will continue as it is as present until December 2020. Thereafter, the UK government aims to achieve an “ambitious agreement” on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

The European Commission has, however, confirmed that: “Subject to any transitional arrangement that may be contained in a possible withdrawal agreement, as of the withdrawal date, the EU rules in the field of recognition of professional qualifications no longer apply to the United Kingdom.”

At the same time, the UK government is of the view that existing arrangements with third countries – for example the EU’s Free Trade Agreement with Canada – do not provide a sufficient level of mutual recognition further afield, so wider recruitment possibilities may develop.


For school staff from other EU countries, other issues remain to be settled that could have a substantial impact on decisions about whether to relocate. Most EU member states, for example, currently have bilateral double taxation agreements in place. Under these, the amount of tax paid in the country of work will be offset against the tax owed in the country of residence, or income earned in the country of work might be taxable only in that country and exempt in the country of residence.

The UK government is planning to continue workplace protections whether a deal is in place on withdrawal or not. The workplace rights and protections from EU law include the Working Time Regulations, which include: annual leave, holiday pay and rest breaks; family leave entitlements, including maternity and parental leave; certain requirements to protect the health and safety of workers; and legislation to prevent and remedy discrimination and harassment in the workplace.


At present, two of the five most popular countries of origin for pupils to the Scottish independent school sector are EU member states: Germany and Spain. Students from the EEA can come to the UK to study with minimal requirements. Those from outside the EEA can come to the UK to study using a tier 4 visa, and must be sponsored by a licensed institution and meet minimum English language requirements.

The report of the Migration Advisory Committee on the impact of international students in the UK, published on 11 September, states that “the UK leaving the EU poses additional challenges” to students in higher and further education, and in independent and language schools, and that: “We do not, though, see any upside for the sector in leaving the EU: any barriers to student mobility are likely to have a negative impact.”

In April 2018, a letter from UK schools organisations – signed by the British Council, the Association of School and College Leaders, the NAHT headteachers' union and the National Education Union – stated: “The benefits of exchange programmes and foreign trips for pupils are widely accepted, and so visa arrangements must enable straightforward international visits and exchanges, rather than school children visiting Boulogne for the day having to apply for visas…Britain’s future prosperity and place in the world depends on a new generation of outward looking, multilingual, globally minded young people who are prepared to live, work and thrive in the global economy.”


Aside from labour supply, there is a range of issues for schools to consider. The end of the free movement of goods and services may well affect the supply chain in a range of areas from construction or equipment to catering. If there is a “no deal” scenario in March 2019, there may be disruption for both consumers and those supplying food. Disruption in supply might make things temporarily unavailable or considerably more expensive; the same may apply to some medical products.

EU withdrawal may well have a considerable impact on the decisions taken by individual families and companies, in terms of employment and recruitment in Scotland and the UK, and the direct impact on pupil numbers. Recent figures indicate that 161,000 jobs in Scotland are based in the financial services industry, large parts of which will be affected by “passporting” arrangements for financial services, compatibility of pension regulations and other aspects of cross-border trading. Likewise, more than 200,000 service jobs in the tourism sector depend on the easiest possible movement of individuals into the UK.

Overall, whatever happens in the Westminster Parliament and beyond, substantial change and upheaval are now inevitable in education. The operating system of the UK and Scotland is being altered – and may take some time to reboot.

John Edward is director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools

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