We have cut ourselves off to spite our fate

15th July 2016 at 00:00
On the day of the EU result, the teachers at a conference in Vienna appeared to realise what the UK public didn’t – that a Brexit would isolate UK educators

On the day of last month’s EU referendum, I travelled to Vienna to give a keynote presentation on the Scottish education system, the role of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) and teacher professionalism. Although I left very early on the Thursday morning, I had made prior arrangements to vote and departed feeling assured that I had done my bit to keep the UK in Europe

On the Thursday night, as I went to bed, the first results were coming in and looked quite optimistic, but getting up early on Friday morning, it was clear that disaster had struck. How on earth could we have voted to leave Europe and cut ourselves off from the enlightenment of our continental cousins?

The Austrian papers were full of comment about the result and clearly had serious qualms about what the UK had done. One, the Kurier, had a large photograph of John Cleese in fulminating pose and with the clear connotations of Basil Fawlty in the “don’t mention the war” episode of Fawlty Towers, along with the stark headline in English: “And now?”

My presentation was to a group of teachers and teacher educators from the University of Vienna, the University of Klagenfurt, two associations for research and development and the Viennese Network of Science Teachers. As I arrived, I was met with a variety of reactions from my Austrian colleagues – none positive. It was a “disaster”, it was “awful”. People were angry.

“What were you thinking of?” and “what have you done to Europe?” they pleaded.

However, most of them also recognised the subtleties of the results cast across the various parts of the “United” Kingdom. What did it mean for the situation in Northern Ireland? How likely now was Scottish independence? (“Much more so,” was my reply…)

The Austrians know from their own history, both in the 20th century and very recently, about the dangers of right-wing extremism, so I was also questioned about that aspect. Was this really a right-wing coup (a point echoed in the British weekend papers), and how much succour would it give to the far right in some other European countries, such as France, the Netherlands and Austria itself? Where did education now stand?

Gove’s legacy travels far

The awareness of Michael Gove’s role in the referendum – and considerable antipathy to his legacy in the English education system – was high. Even in German (which I don’t speak), I could recognise disdain!

Why on earth would the UK cut itself off from helping to develop, or benefit from, the enlightened policies and advice that comes out of the European Commission? An example is last year’s excellent Shaping Career-long Perspectives on Teaching: a guide on policies to improve initial teacher education (see bit.ly/EC-ITE).

Why would the UK wish to cut itself off from European-funded research and policy development projects, such as the European Policy Network on School Leadership – a project in which GTCS was directly involved (see bit.ly/euro-leadership)? Why would it wish to cut itself off from the possibilities of funded study visitors for teachers and other staff through the Erasmus+ project (see bit.ly/pluserasmus)?

Unfortunately, I had no answers to any of these questions. Of course, if the Brexit campaigners are to be believed, we’ll be awash with money soon, so having the Westminster government funding such initiatives will clearly be a priority. But oh, wait a minute, did we really believe the Leave campaign’s £350-million-a-week pledge for the health service? Have we really forgotten Mr Gove (no longer a shoo-in for high office) and his antipathy to the educational “Blob”?

Have we overlooked that many in the Westminster government seem to look to the US for their educational ideas, rather than what is happening in Europe: the charter-school movement leading to academies and free schools; the “What Works?” research leading to a deprofessionalisation of the teacher; Mr Gove’s past liking for the works and philosophy of ED Hirsch, he of the Core Knowledge Foundation? Or what about the liking of Westminster schools minister Nick Gibb for Daniel Willingham, the American psychologist and critic of learning styles – or that much funded educational research in England simply seems to be a confirmation (affirmation?) of government policies?

The next morning, sitting at breakfast, an elderly English couple sat behind me, discussing with some approval the referendum result. They did, however, have some concerns, particularly about the effect on Northern Ireland. What would happen there? Scotland got a mention, but almost by default, with an acceptance (actually a welcome?) that it was a step closer to independence. But they said they could understand why Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted differently from the English, as they clearly didn’t have the problem with immigration that the English had.

There it appeared to be in a nutshell: sod the economy, sod the cultural benefits from being part of Europe, sod any joint work with other countries on educational matters. Let’s just keep out any foreigners.

I’ll remember that the next time I speak to one of the very many excellent Polish teachers working in Scottish schools.

Tom Hamilton retired last week as director of education, registration and professional learning at the General Teaching Council for Scotland. He has been appointed as honorary professor, University of Sterling

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