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Decisions, decisions...

Shaun Fenton looks at the significance of the EU referendum for the future of education

Posted by Hannah Oakman | April 01, 2016 | People, policy, politics

At a recent meeting of Reigate Grammar School’s Geography Club, A-level student Rhiannon made a passionate defence of Britain’s place in Europe, but also gave a balanced account of reasons why the choice between remaining in or leaving the EU is a difficult decision. Of the students listening, some agreed and some didn’t. All listened, all learned, all were open to learning.

Debate elsewhere about the forthcoming EU vote has been very different and it is a shame that hyperbole, shouting, unsupported assertions, fear tactics (from both sides) and poor manners have been noteworthy elements from the earliest days of a campaign that will result in the most important political decision our country is likely to make for a generation. 

What is interesting, however, is that even amongst campaigners there is relative agreement about the things that matter. When you strip away the symbolism and posturing, it is all about community – working with others and interdependence. So why have political leaders gone wrong when our schools are flourishing communities? More than ever before schools are pastorally sensitive, technology-fluent but people-focused big “families”. People work together, support each other, celebrate diversity and achieve great things, but are well aware that their greatest achievements come from working with others. Maybe politicians across the political spectrum should attend more school assemblies and PSHE lessons?

More than for any previous generation, travel, trade and technology have made today’s young people the interdependent generation and the EU debate is at the heart of this issue. It is political, it is economic and it is moral – and it relates to key contemporary problems. With countries across the globe on different but parallel tracks of industrial development, we will only start to address environmental issues through international team work, never through isolationism. The same must be true of world hunger, immigration matters, threats to peace, modern slavery and the repeated acts of barbarism and genocide that fill our TV screens during every news bulletin.

The outcome of the referendum will set the tone and sense of direction for the future of our nation

The ‘remain’ campaign says being in the EU is a way to collaborate and make progress in all areas of life while the ‘out’ campaign wants the same benefits but point to opportunities to create improved partnerships in a more global sense. Is it ironic that all those who seem to be so poor at working together point to the importance of team work?

So what is the significance of the EU vote for education? It gives us clear examples of how not to behave in public life and examples are always useful in schools. Maybe they are something to use in an assembly?

More seriously, the outcome of the referendum will set the tone and sense of direction for the future of our nation, a country we have only borrowed in trust from our children and grandchildren. I hope that, whichever way the vote goes, fear-mongering, xenophobia and bad manners are trounced in the court of public opinion. 

There are voices on both sides that sound reactionary, narrow-minded and aggressive. I pray that a new dawn on the day after the June referendum will be one when, having seen through the bully boys of yesteryear’s playgrounds, our community, our country wakes with an emboldened sense of purpose to work together, in friendship, collaboratively, across countries and continents to make the world a better place. They are the values that our schools are trying to engender on a daily basis. That is the world our schoolchildren deserve to inherit and are well-placed to lead when they become the opinion formers, movers and shakers of the future. We can only hope.

Shaun Fenton is headmaster of Reigate Grammar School W:

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