Interview with a Teacher: Brexit, Education, & Polish Kids

Britain is, in no uncertain terms, in a state of upheaval following the monumental #Brexit vote on the 23rd June. Political leaders are quitting left, right, and centre, economic chaos has ensued. Today, teachers across the UK have gone on strike over funding and work-life balance. Though today’s strike isn’t about Brexit, there’s no doubt that there’s link between the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the future of our country’s education, and the people who whose future will be most affected by the outcome never even got the chance to voice their opinions. To get a better insight into the issue, we interviewed Leela, a twenty-something teacher based in London, to get her take on how Brexit may affect pupils from a range of backgrounds.

Leela is a secondary school teacher in West  London. It’s a typical gig for a Teach First graduate: a low performing school that badly needed an injection of young, keen blood. The school mainly serves  working class estates; 42% of pupils are eligible for free school meals; and for over 50% of students English is not their first language. “Our kids face the reality of living in communities in which historically  aspirations are low, and  attendance is low, alongside the structural inequalities presented by their background…” But importantly, there is little feeling of division within the school, despite the fact that it has a very large immigrant community from Eastern Europe and North Africa. “They all deliberately do their best to learn and speak English, even to each other, and even when one student’s Equote1nglish is not that good.”


This is a melting pot and a microcosm. Many of the children consider themselves ‘Labour’, as that’s how their parents vote. They are the real working class of London – they live on the outskirts of the city, never quite feeling a part of it, and there’s a great deal of resentment on the subject of jobs. These aren’t your typical liberal Londoners.

 

How to teach kids about the EU

It’s been brought up many times during the EU debate that the young are disproportionately affected by the decision to leave the EU. There have been tears, rallies, hashtags, calls for a revote, and anyone with a Facebook feed knows that most young people are devastated about the result.

Our friends aside, however, there are also those who were too young to vote, but who will inevitably still be affected by the outcome.  But how much can they really reason about the EU, and how does one even go about teaching them? As Leela explains, the subject comes up quite naturally, “The EU inevitably comes up in geography, there’s no way around it, whether you’re talking about tariffs, trade deals, subsidies, international cooperation, or what the meaning of an intergovernmental organisation is, it’s always going to come up. For example, the EU is the best example of a trade bloc. So I already had some materials explaining the EU, regardless of Brexit.”

The Brexit debate, then, just accelerated the need for new, relevant materials. “One of the form tutors  for year 7 (age 11/12) had said that her class had been asking her about it, but she couldn’t really explain it, so asked for my help. I was able to flesh out some of the material I had made previously and adapt my resources. You want to be sensitive – you don’t want to just bulldoze over them, and that really isn’t my role. The way I approached it was: What does the EU actually do? I tried to explain it from that perspective. I tried to let them come to their own decision over whether it was a good or bad thing. When using  videos from the internet, I tried to use ones that were made before the debate.

When it comes to explaining the EU, then, and letting them come to their own quote2conclusions, what are the key things to focus on? “Basically, I made them look at three points: How is the EU run? The EU is run by a parliamentary system, which is quite complicated, so we compared it to the UK’s parliamentary system. Everybody puts in money into the EU, where does it get spent?  Why is the free movement of people important?”

 

“It’s basically the same as the British Parliamentary system”

“The best way was to explain the EU parliament was compare it to the British parliamentary system, as they are very similar.” Like the EU, the UK has an elected body, the House of Commons, and an unelected body the House of Lords. Similarly, MEPs are the equivalent of MPs, of which Britain has the 3rd largest number in the EU as we have the third largest population, so we get 73 MEPs votes in parliament. The unelected Council of the EU is similar to our House of Lords, it’s made up of the appropriate national minister from each of the 28 members.

“So one of the videos  – made by an American, so about as unbiased as you can get – that I showed them goes through all of this and shows the exceptions to the EU, and talks about Norway’s membership of the single market. And after it finishes explaining it all the kids say to me ‘But miss, Norway doesn’t get a vote. But they still have to pay money in, but don’t get to decide on any of the laws.’ So I ask them, if that were you, would you think that was the better deal? And of course they say ‘No, why would you do that?’ Then they realise that Britain won’t be offered a better deal, ‘Why would they if we’re leaving them?’  So they can come to these conclusions themselves.”

The Economic Argument

One of the most useful resources Leela found for teaching the younger students about the economics of the EU was a video made by the BBC in response to the Brexit debate. It talked about the figure of £350 million that was being thrown around by Leavers, and how that gets broken down.

“It explained that much of it comes back into the UK Treasury, and as private investment in UK businesses, funding things like scientific research, development in rural areas; it tackles all those key concepts that we try and teach the kids about anyway.  So it ends up being more like £161 million a week that we send to the EU.”

How did that go down with the kids?

“They said to me, ‘miss, that’s an enormous amount of money!’ because, as a kid, you look at that kind of money and think about it in terms of weekly spending, and it really is enormous. So then we compared it to how much we spend on other services in the UK every single week, and we broke it down into “thousand-millions” instead of “billions” to make it easier to understand. £821 million a week on defence; £1.4 billion (or one-thousand-four-hundred-million) on education (they’re shocked at this point ‘miss, that’s 8.6 times what we spend on the EU!’); £2.6 billion on the NHS (or two-thousand-six-hundred-million). What is 161 mil compared to that?”

She explained that the rest goes to some of the poorer parts of the EU, it goes towards our international contribution to aid and development globally, maintaining free borders, Interpol and bureaucrats. So it all seems reasonable to a 12-year-old, but what about the older children?

“A lot of my year 12 students,  17-year-olds, were quite sceptical of the EU going into our debates. Some of them do economics as well as geography, and so have a good understanding of subsidies, tariffs etc, and to be honest some of the curriculum does not cast a very good light on the EU, so they were asked to do a research task independently on the EU. And they were shocked  – they could understand that immigration needed to be put aside, because they’re old enough to understand that it skews the debate based on your views. They could also understand that the idea of being dictated to by the EU is abhorrent to some, which is why some people feel like they’re voting for their independence. But because they’re doing economics, they also understand that trade requires you to have a certain number of rules. They asked me ‘Don’t we have to comply with their regulations anyway?’ Yes, of course we do. ‘Well, if we have to stick to their rules anyway, why does it make a difference whether or not we leave, if we can’t be free of them just by leaving?’” And these are teenagers who, with a little research, were able to see what many voting adults failed to.

Free movement, friendship, and personal dilemmas

The final topic Leela covers in her lessons is citizenship: what does it mean to be an EU citizen, what rights do you have, and how are you represented in the EU?

“They want to know why the free movement of people is important. So I said to them, do you think you may want to work in another country one day? And you know what, they’re full of ambition and aspiration – they’re not yet trapped in a particular life in a particular job, and freedom of choice is so highly ranked on their list of desirables for their future.”  

Of course, not everyone was as concerned with the future as they were with the here and how.

quote3“I had one girl in my class say to me ‘Well, my dad is a plumber, and he’ll get more work if we leave the EU because he won’t have to compete with the Polish workers.’ And I said ‘Look, you have polish friends in this class, their parents are no better or worse plumbers than your dad.’ But of course I can’t explain that her dad probably should examine why he can’t compete with Polish plumbers, because it’s not because the work is any different. For a 12 year old, her main concern is her father’s business, and she feels that he will be better off if we leave the EU.”


Although the campaign focused heavily on anti-EU immigration, reports have shown that in the days after the Brexit vote, incidences of racism across all ethnicities rose by around 57% across the UK. “We have a very large Somali and North African community, most of them are Muslim, all the girls wear headscarves, and they’re extremely hard-working with amazing, if rambunctious, personalities. They were worried in the 2015 general election: ‘miss, they want to get rid of us don’t they?’ and this time they asked, ‘Will we have to leave too?’ I had to explain that their visas have nothing to do with the EU. But they can’t distinguish between anti-Somali sentiment and anti-Polish sentiment, and the real problem is, neither can the average British person. It’s endemic across the UK, because people think that leaving the EU will reduce all immigration.”

After a week of intense lessons on the EU, Leela’s school held an internal referendum vote on the  Wednesday with years 7, 8 and 9. Over 90% voted to remain. “It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of my white British pupils voted to remain, because they see the value of integration.”

“It’s fascinating – this generation of children is growing up side by side with these immigrant communities, and their main concern is ‘If we vote out, will my friend have to leave?’ ‘Next week, will I have to leave?’”

The Day After

I woke up on Friday at 5am and was completely devastated. I cried the whole 1 hour tube journey to work (by the time I got to my station, no one was sitting next to me, it’s just common knowledge that you don’t sit next to a crying girl on the tube.)” She was avoiding having to go to work.

“I didn’t want to go in and actually explain to these kids something that I didn’t know the answers to – that I was fearful of the answers to – or the fact that the “they don’t want us here” rhetoric really had won.”

“I spent the entire day on Friday standing in front of classes, explaining what I knew: Article 50, the two year timeline, the rights of European citizens. I told them that even if Article 50 is invoked this year, your family will still have two years to get everything together. You may be allowed to stay depending on how long you’ve been here, if you have the right to apply for indefinite leave to remain. We don’t know, but this is the current situation. They asked ‘Will I be able to finish my education here?’ I told them they wouldn’t.”

But what about the girl whose dad is a plumber? Surely not all the children were heartbroken over the result?

“One or two kids did a little jig in their seats when I went through the results in class, but they were very much in the minority – roughly two students in one class. One of them was the girl with the plumber father. I knew her views beforehand, and when I was teaching them I told them that I would like us to remain in the EU. She normally contributes so much to class, but this time she was contributing much less. She was able to speak openly to me, but in the class as a whole, she was much less vocal than when she was one on one. I was glad she was able to be vocal with me though – it shows that she was intimidated by the situation, and not by me as an individual.”  

What about the Teachers?

“So there are some teachers I know who voted leave. A teacher said that they didn’t understand why people needed to come here as economic migrants,  why weren’t they improving their own country? They were talking mainly about Polish people. For me, it’s outrageous that they would say that, because the very people they’re supposed to value in our day-to-day work – who they profess to value – include an enormous number of immigrant students who work incredibly hard, achieve incredible results, some learning English in three years and achieve good GCSE grades in a foreign language, putting white British boys to shame.”

“I wanted to point out to her that they are actually improving their own country, do you know how much people send back in remittances? The whole point of joining the EU was to improve their country.”

The Next Prime Minister…?

Former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove formally announced his candidacy for Prime Minister on June 30th.

“In terms of education, we’ve been in so much turmoil over the last two years, and now it’s pertinent, because Michael Gove’s changes to the curriculum have been sweeping, and not necessarily for the better.”

“Because I had had to study under the previous curriculum and research it it for my Education degree, that’s the only reason I know what previous curriculums look like. But the curriculum that you and I were educated on was under Blair and – whatever horrific things he did at the end of his career – he was all about education. And that National Curriculum was incredible because it sets out core values that included diversity and equality of opportunity among them. And this didn’t just apply to Londoners – all the children of our generation had the same education. However this translated into classrooms, the intention is clear. The country I was brought up in, with a particular set of educational values, which have shaped my views and my identity – that whole rhetoric had been betrayed.

“I fundamentally dislike the intended direction of Michael Gove’s curriculum. It’s incredibly Anglocentric, not values based but facts based, and studies around the world prove that this is the wrong way to go about creating people who are individual thinkers and creative adaptable learners. Even basic things – he tried to take references to climate change out of the Geography curriculum. Of course every educator in the land protested, and it was reintroduced at secondary level. The fact that it was even up for debate is insane!

Aren’t these just the petty worryings of someone who’s had the benefit of a top class education? “It’s not just about me being a member of a small, angry elite – I can see the disappointment reflected in my students, who are by no means upper middle class. They value the same fundamental things as me.”

So there is a way to teach about highly charged political issues without letting bias creep into our education system.

Leela voted to Remain – as did most of her student body – but she still sees the reasoning behind some students’ decision to Leave. “The most important thing was that they felt they could come to me – one 17-year-old student said her mum had given her her vote, so she came to me so she could make a properly informed decision.” It was all about the facts at the end of the day – even though the majority of the children themselves couldn’t vote, Leela felt it was her role to make sure they were properly informed about a decision that would affect the rest of their lives.

“In the news and media, the misinformation and soundbites of the Leave campaign were treated with the same importance as the facts and experts speaking on behalf of the Remain campaign. I wanted to give my students the facts without the bias, and I think the results speak for themselves.”


Further reading 

From the section entitled Values and Purpose of the National Curriculum published in 1999: Foremost is a belief in education, at home and at school, as a route to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural, physical and mental development, and thus the well-being, of the individual. Education is also a route to equality of opportunity for all, a healthy and just democracy, a productive economy, and sustainable development. Education should reflect the enduring values that contribute to these ends. These include valuing ourselves, our families and other relationships, the wider groups to which we belong, the diversity in our society and the environment in which we live. Education should also reaffirm our commitment to the virtues of truth, justice, honesty, trust and a sense of duty.  http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/QCA-04-1374.pdf

Compared with the Aims of the current National Curriculum: The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.  NC published 2014: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/381754/SECONDARY_national_curriculum.pdf 

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