The debate on Brexit has now dominated the front pages of major newspapers, social media and news bulletins for close to three years and, with the leaving date now moved back to 31 October, it’s going to carry on a good bit longer.
It’s not just politicians struggling to agree on a coherent plan on Britain’s future: we have all been engaged in debate and become frustrated at the lack of political leadership in Westminster. People argue over Leave/Remain with their neighbours, family members and even strangers. There is no doubt that Brexit has been incredibly divisive and, in addition to its economic and political cost, there is a human and social cost – we are now a more divided society.
However, one space that remains relatively Brexit-free seems to be the classroom. “We don’t talk about Brexit at school, it’s too political,” some young people told me recently. And rightly so, some might argue, given how divisive Brexit is and schools being required to remain neutral on political matters. Political discussions are becoming more polarised: Brexit; Trump; teachers’ strikes for better pay. Children’s strikes to raise awareness of climate change. One can understand how it might be easier to just stay away from even mentioning these issues.
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However, our young people don’t live in a void of information – they watch the news, use social media, discuss things with their families at home, and eight- and nine-year-olds write letters to the prime minister. Despite some seeing young people are apathetic and disengaged, 75 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish independence referendum.
A majority of young people say they would like to have more information on political parties and politics in general. They have a thirst for knowledge and debate – they want to talk about the issues which are likely to impact them and their futures. Teachers tend to be strongly in favour of remaining, yet many remain reluctant to discuss Brexit in the classroom. A primary teacher told me recently she even dropped Europe as a topic recently, “as it’s too controversial now’”. But we need to talk in classrooms about Brexit.
Leaving the EU will clearly have an impact on our economy and trade, our freedom to move across countries, travel or study abroad – it will change our society and how we relate to each other, if it hasn’t already. Young people will be affected by the decision a majority of adults with voting rights took in June 2016. Talking about politics in the classroom is controversial and can potentially get teachers in trouble – indeed a comment might be enough to get a parent to complain or lead to disciplinary action. For those teaching subjects such as modern studies, history, sociology or citizenship, avoiding questions on migration, racism, climate change, political parties and human rights is almost impossible. But what about the rest? Should teachers avoid these topics entirely, as “too controversial”, or should we challenge this view and understand that young people need schools to explain contentious issues and create opportunities for healthy debate?
Whatever one’s views are on Brexit, we can’t ignore the fact that young people’s futures will be shaped by it. The present divisions affect them already – in a survey we carried out with over 1,100 young Eastern Europeans for the Here to Stay? study, 77 per cent said they have experienced racist or xenophobic attacks in schools or prejudice-based bullying and half of them said they have seen more racism since Brexit. In focus groups, over 120 young people told us that Brexit is rarely discussed and they worried about their insecure place in Britain, with no one to provide reassurance, as teachers did not know what to say or did not want to talk about Brexit and its implications for EU nationals.
A 2107 NASUWT teaching union survey on Brexit also reported that one in five teachers had experienced or heard foreign-born colleagues being racially abused. These are concerning reports – and, one could argue, stem from not tackling social divisions head on in the classrooms. Young people making racist and xenophobic comments have been overheard bu ignored, and reporting mechanisms not clear. In our survey, young people reported being called “Russian terrorists” or “Polish prostitutes” – along with xenophobic comments, such as “go back to your country” or “you’ll be deported soon” disguised as “jokes” or “banter”.
Understanding Brexit as a social and political phenomenon is vital to good citizenship and young people’s education. Debating why people have voted for Brexit in areas with little or no migration, why Scotland voted predominantly “Remain” while parts of England were predominantly “Leave”, how Brexit might impact EU nationals or freedom of movement, the increase in racism and xenophobia – these are all issues that can be debated with factual information and skills for building a pro or against argument.
We owe it to our young people to help them make sense of everything that is happening around them, to build their engagement and interests in wider social issues and their ability to debate them. For young people who are EU nationals, this is also an acknowledgement of the insecurity and anxieties Brexit has brought to their families and the everyday negative experiences of exclusion. Ensuring that they know about the need to apply for “settled status” by June 2021 to remain in the UK could help avoid a future Windrush generation of EU-born nationals.
Teachers should not promote their political views in the classroom, regardless of how strongly we feel. But that does not mean we cannot involve children and young people in healthy debate and discussion, and ask them to review the evidence on both sides before they express opinions on Brexit. It might just help us have a more engaged and informed future generation of citizens and voters – and we really need that.
Dr Daniela Sime is reader/associate professor in education and social justice at the University of Strathclyde. She leads the Here to Stay? project, which looks at the experiences of Eastern European young people settled in Britain.
She recommends that teachers visit these sites for resources on Brexit, migration, citizenship and anti-bullying: