'The mood at school is of disbelief, bleakness and shame': a British principal reacts to the UK's vote to leave the European Union

25th June 2016 at 12:14
Schools, teachers, Brexit, EU, referendum
British school leader Geoff Barton describes his fear at Britain's vote to ‘Brexit’ – but urges schools to continue to tap into young people’s optimism

When I arrived at school yesterday morning, I was met with a remark that would have seemed unthinkable 24 hours earlier. It came from one of our heads of year.

“Do you think we should get all our foreign students together,” he asked, “you know – to reassure them that they’ll be all right?”

It was a comment that demonstrated how far the European Union referendum was allowed to be reduced to a base and sordid question about immigration.

What have we unleashed? 

How on earth can a narrative have emerged whereby we are now considering whether our students of Eastern European origin might need adult words of reassurance? What have we unleashed?

George, a young geography teacher with a passion for travel, walks past me as I’m writing this.

“I genuinely feel scared about what’s going to happen,” he says. “Really scared. I want to know where I should go to live.”

These are strange times and there’s an extraordinary mood across the school – disbelief, bleakness, and almost a sense of shame at the mirror we appear to be holding up to our national selves.

This, at least, is what it feels like in my sleepless world and so I have retreated to a place I know best: a room surrounded by the optimism of young people with their futures before them.

How different it all seems outside: all those England flags, the tribal talk of "reclaiming our borders", the vomit-inducing macho triumphalism.

A hidden majority? 

We realise now that during this referendum campaign we were staring at an English underbelly we hadn’t previously noticed.

People like me – liberal, European in outlook, and part, I suppose, of the intelligentsia – we’ve been kicked in our smug teeth by people who see the world differently.

That’s democracy, of course, except now we all have to live with the consequences. And so do these students around me whose futures await them.

At our school, in response to a largely toxic national campaign – when the people who should have been articulating values of optimistic internationalism gave the stage to people pedaling narrow-minded slogans and soundbites – we decided to run our own EU referendum.

Over the past week all students and staff have taken part in a series of six assembly debates and a lunchtime question and answer session.

They were hugely uplifting occasions. Immigration was rarely mentioned. Instead, students asked questions about free trade, the implications for travel and part-time working abroad, about whether visas would be needed to head to EuroDisney.

The vote yesterday by more than 760 students and staff gave the school’s Remain campaign a significant win – 72 per cent.

A vote for the future

So yesterday afternoon we were feeling proud that in our rural comprehensive school we had been able to listen to debates with more nuance than most in the media. Students had explored issues in a way which did them credit.

The girl who won the debates for the remain team was Lucy. In her speech, she raised her hand above the heads of her student audience and pointed to the teachers.

“This vote is about us,” she told her audience. “Don’t let their generation tell our generation what’s good for us. We want to be part of Europe. Don’t let them stop us.”

Unfortunately, Lucy, it feels as if we just have.

But now, as the national dust settles, we’ll tap into that optimism of working in schools. We’ll more proudly than ever promote tolerance, democratic values, internationalism, and celebrate the wonderful linguistic and cultural richness of Europe.

In doing so, we will remind students that while we may not be in Europe, Europe is most certainly in us and in our school, and will resolutely remain there.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a high school in Suffolk, England. He tweets as @realgeoffbarton

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