Will Brexit be good for education?

28 Aug

The media has been teeming with speculation about the effect of Brexit on the economy. (The vote in favour of exit from the EU was narrow, 51.9% to 48.1%.)  Much less has been written about the impact that it is likely to have on education, an issue worth exploring.  Newly-installed Prime Minister Theresa May, who has taken up the reigns of leadership, spends considerable time ascertaining the views of advisers and ministers and more time after reflecting on the information garnered before acting.   While Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, is trying to hustle May into triggering the Brexit process by invoking Section 50, she is holding back and considering what must be done by way of preparation.

(1)       Impact on Schools

(a)        Pupils

Our schools have had to cope with an influx of pupils, several from the Eastern European countries. While there is a headwind to ensure that those children from EU countries currently in the UK remain in the UK, Brexit will put a stop to more joining them, unless there are good reasons to do otherwise – i.e. their parents are employed to work in those professions where we are short of expertise.   However, if both, the EU and Britain, don’t find a way of creating win-win situations, our industry will lose out.  The welcome of the children of other European countries could lose out.   Further, the children of parents from other European countries currently in the country, many of whom have been powering our economy, will be forced to leave.

The loss of such pupils could leave our schools/academies culturally bereft, especially as the curriculum – overt and covert – has benefited from having them as part of our education system.

About 5,000 children from EU countries are studying in our independent boarding schools.  Brexit is likely to increase restrictions and add to the complexity of travel arrangements, making their parents reconsider whether they want their children to be educated in these institutions.  If the responses of the parents are negative, the independent schools could well be in financial straits.

We have begun to experience incidents of racism following the referendum.   On the day after the Brexit vote in a Cambridgeshire town the police launched an investigation when laminated cards were posted through the letterboxes of Polish residents. They read: “Leave the EU.  No more Polish vermin.”  Some cards included the sentence: “Go home Polish scum.”

The Daily Express reported on a teenage pupil who found a number of offensive, racists cards on people’s doorsteps near St Peter’s School prior to the start of the working day.  One woman said that her disabled mother found “disgusting” notes outside her front door.  “My mum has a few Polish neighbours,” she said, “who are very nice and she was very upset to see these kinds of messages.”

Other ethnic minority groups are also becoming victims on a wave of anti-EU xenophobia.  A Welsh business-woman, Shazia Awan (of Muslim background), said she was told to “pack her bags and go home”, in a verbal attack on Twitter.  She added that in Cardiff she saw a white man calling a non-white woman a “n……”.  Ms Awan observed: “Every ethnic minority, every decent person, everyone who is in a mixed-race relationship or from a black, Asian minority ethnic background is going to feel this.  Now start the vile tweets.”

Children, I posit, are not natural racists.  They are taught to be so by parents and other relatives.  Voting to leave has already begun to cause schools to take measures to ensure that the non-UK, EU children are not made to feel unwelcome.

(b)        Staffing

In recent times, schools have been suffering from a dearth of staff members.   A quarter of teachers leave the profession within three years of starting work, according to government figures published at the end of June 2016.  An increasing number of teachers are unqualified and thousands do not have the degrees in the subjects they teach, according to the statistics.

There were altogether 503,000 teachers working in English schools in 2015.  If one adds the teaching assistants and support staff, the total staff headcount rises to 1.4 million, a 3% increase on 2014.   Notwithstanding the increase, the number of qualified teachers leaving the profession is rising faster.  The percentage of staff still in post three years after qualifying has fallen from 77% in 2014 to 75% in 2015.  Altogether, 5% of teachers are unqualified.   It appears that workload and disenchantment have also caused more teachers to be ill.   Teachers’ sickness-absence has resulted in schools losing 2.22 million days in 2015, 10,000 more than in 2014.

It is possible that Brexit will exacerbate the staffing problem in schools.   Brexit has resulted in the pound losing significant value.  Teaching jobs overseas have become more lucrative than ever before.  A number of the headteachers of British international schools are able to offer British teachers wishing to leave these shores pay rises (if they use local currencies) without spending more.

Brian Christian, principal of the British School in Tokyo, told the Times Educational Supplement (TES) that he was disappointed by the Brexit vote.  However, it had made life far easier.   The school collects fees and pays salaries in yen.   A year ago, the pound was worth 185 yen and now it is 135 yen.  “I appointed an assistant headteacher from the UK in the early spring,” he said, “and she contacted me a week ago (in mid-July 2016) to say she had never had such a rapid pay rise, but it didn’t cost me anything.”

The overwhelming number of young people (including young teachers) voted to remain in Europe.  Following the vote, several are disenchanted. The disenchantment could act as a spur to encouraging young teachers to work abroad where the demand for them at international schools is rising from 400,000 this year to 800,000 in 2026 (according to experts).

Katherine Vincent, the programme leader for the secondary PGCE at the University College London Institute of Education, said that the incentive for teachers to move is high and a concern.  “Teachers in England are stuck on 1% pay increases. That’s lower than inflation, so that in real terms, their salaries are going down,” she told the TES.

(2)       Higher Education likely to feel the wintry winds of exit

About 5.5% of Higher Education (HE) students are from EU countries.   This translates into 125,000 EU students in British universities generating £2.2 billion for the economy and creating 19,000 jobs.  Were they to leave, there would be a significant outflow of money not just for the universities but also for associated industries related to student accommodation, restaurants, tourist events and transport – to name a few.

However, the pound has dipped in value – 13.5% against the euro and 10.0% against the dollar.   It has made fees more affordable to international students and the loss of EU students could be offset by the import from the rest of the world.   So, there is a gap in the clouds through which the sun is peeping.

Notwithstanding, Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of Universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter and Durham, suggested that £500 million of education and research grants awarded by the EU to Britain is now at risk as a result of our voting to leave.

Toby Young, the journalist who founded the West London Free School and voted to leave Europe, told Ian King, the economics editor/reporter of SKY, “Even if you deduct what we give to the EU and the EU then spends on institutions like the Russell Group, we will have £10 billion left over. It’s typical of the educated, upper middle class viewpoint on the EU, and we see that attitudes towards Brexit do skew along class lines.  There is no reason to think that as part of a post-Brexit deal with the EU that the British government couldn’t arrange for EU students to come to British universities.”

We will need to see what unfolds. The current position is that British universities are excellent at winning funding from the EU.   In fact, it leads the other European countries in winning grants from the European Research Council (ERC), the EU-backed body which supports scientific and technological research.  Altogether, 23% of ERC funds go to British universities. The Russell Group universities secure 18% of ERC funding – more than all the universities in Germany or France and more than those of Spain and Italy combined.

According to Dr Piatt, the UK has 1% of the world population, 4% of its researchers, earns 12% of international citations and produces 16% of the world’s most cited research papers.   British universities generate £1.86 billion for the UK annually.

Leaving the EU may impact negatively on universities in other ways.  They are likely to lose both, students and staff members, albeit this could be compensated by students from China, India and other countries – the emerging markets.  Maybe the universities will find the time, expertise and wherewithal to direct their research energies in finding new ways of generating income at a time when successive governments have been shifting the way they are funded from being dependents on taxpayers to relying on fees.

Universities could suffer from a brain-drain of staff.  Altogether, 18.7% of academic staff in the Russell Group institutions in 2011-12 were EU nationals.  In its submission (prior to the referendum), the Group mentioned that the ability of universities to recruit EU staff and attract EU nationality students without having to negotiate the UK visa system, with the attendant expensive and administrative burden for both parties, were incredibly valuable.

Professor Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University warned that the UK would become “culturally isolated” were Brexit to limit scope for foreign exchanges.   Dame Julia Goodfellow, Vice Chancellor of the University of Kent and President of Universities UK, said: “British students benefit from being taught by the best minds from across Europe.  Membership of the EU has been good for universities and good for science and research that improves people’s lives.”

Post-Brexit, there is a danger that UK will become insular, as British students will be less exposed to other cultures.  Unless something is done to attract students from a truly international field, our British youngsters will lose out in being less rounded and worldly people able to make their mark in the international jobs market.

(3)       Reflections

Like many other colleagues, I have had to come to terms with the outcome of the referendum and am averse to the idea of having another vote.  The nation has spoken.  We must make the best of the outcome.

I make no apologies for highlighting the negative aspects of Brexit because in education we are much better off coming to terms with the realities than deceiving ourselves by craving for another better world.   We have to accept that the outcome of the referendum will make education, like the economy, worse off before it gets better.

We will have to think creatively and be determined not to let the downside of Brexit affect the optimism that has been a part of British education and the envy of other nations.  It will enable us to rise from the ashes of the political divorce.

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