Scotland risks becoming ‘a horrible blob of insularity’

8th July 2016 at 00:00
The EU referendum result leaves the diverse school workforce in a vulnerable position, critics warn

The vote to leave the EU puts Scotland in danger of becoming a “horrible homogenous blob of insularity”, according to Barbara van der Meulen, an English teacher from the Netherlands who settled in the Western Highlands of Scotland more than a decade ago.

“All islands have a fairly insular culture,” she said. “Having teachers up and down the country and in all sectors from other countries with funny accents and stories to tell and other languages to add and other richness of background – these things are very, very important. You need these other elements to bring a richer picture.”

Another consequence of Brexit on schools would be fewer staff at a time when the country was already in the midst of a teacher recruitment crisis, she predicted, explaining: “If we have shortages, we will need to look over the border.”

‘Repugnant’ campaign

Education secretary John Swinney agrees. He warned in an exclusive interview with TESS last week that Scotland relied on workers from Europe to deliver its public services, including education, and now that was in jeopardy. Mr Swinney called the arguments on immigration put forward by the leave campaign “repugnant”.

One poster unveiled by Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who has now stepped down from leadership of the anti-EU party, was reported to the police with the complaint that it incited racial hatred and breached race discrimination laws. The image shows a queue of mostly nonwhite migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.”

Many education workers – from teachers to speech and language therapists – came from Europe and without them public services would struggle, Mr Swinney argued.

“Our public services are to an extent dependent on the contribution made by European citizens and that’s very welcome and a good thing, an enriching thing, but we have now got a question mark put over that,” he said. “I certainly want to make it abundantly clear to European citizens they are very welcome here in Scotland and we will try to protect their involvement in our economy.”

Figures from last year’s teacher census show that 458 primary teachers (2 per cent of all primary teaching staff) identify themselves as “other” – that is, not Scottish, British or from elsewhere in the UK. In the secondary sector, that figure rises to 659 (just shy of 3 per cent of all secondary teachers).

Fear of deportation

Theresa May, the favourite in the contest to become the next Conservative prime minister, has refused to rule out deporting EU nationals post-Brexit, amid fears that guaranteeing their rights could lead to a “huge influx…of EU nationals who would all want to come here while they have the chance”.

Ms van der Meulen’s mother is Scottish and her father Dutch; she describes herself as growing up with one leg in Scotland and the other in the Netherlands.

She moved to Scotland in 1998 to get to know her “second country” and decided to become a teacher. She was able to undertake her PDGE free of charge at the University of Edinburgh under rules that mean EU citizens are entitled to study under the same conditions as nationals. She graduated in 2003 and is now self-employed, running Latitude Learning and Teaching, but worked in Scottish classrooms for more than a decade.

Excluded from ‘big decisions’

Saskia Burnett has been a personal support assistant at Bruntsfield Primary in Edinburgh for the past eight years.

She came to Edinburgh from her native Germany after the city was recommended by a friend. She had planned to travel on to Ireland but met her now husband and has lived in Scotland for 20 years.

Ms Burnett walked with her husband and sons to the polling station on 23 June but was not entitled to make her own voice heard. She can take part in elections – and voted in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – but was denied a say in whether Britain should remain part of the EU.

“I was quite surprised how emotional I got,” she said. “There was just this real sense of big decisions in the making but I wasn’t allowed to be part of it.”

When Ms Burnett woke to the news that 51.9 per cent of voters had opted to leave, she found it “horrific”. She has been grieving since then, she says. “It’s like you’ve lost someone – it’s really upsetting.”

Ms Burnett had let her sons’ German passports expire but now she will be renewing them so that they – like her – can access all that the EU has to offer.

“For me, the upsetting thing is that I think this decision has been made by people who don’t completely understand what it is that they’ve decided,” she said. “I don’t think that they understand what the EU stands for and that it is populistic scaremongering that has caused all of this.”


Heads call for young people’s fears to be addressed

Headteachers in England have written to the prime minister demanding that he address EU pupils’ fears about being forced to leave the UK and rising racism in the wake of the Brexit vote.

According to the NAHT headteachers’ union, schools leaders report that students are worried about their futures and it is “not just the economic markets that need calming”.

In an open letter to prime minister David Cameron, the general secretary of the NAHT, Russell Hobby, said: “Our young people need a statement from the government to address their fears.

“NAHT strongly urges the government to give pupils from the EU better assurance that they will be able to complete their school education without interruption; that they and their families remain welcome and valued members of the communities they call home.”

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