I stayed up watching the EU Referendum results until 2am, by which time the result was clear. Now, we have to think about the agenda for a better future. For me the key to that better future lies in our much-maligned and fractured education system. Let me tell you why.
I’m very sorry that the positive “remain” message of peace, solidarity, human rights and shared global values did not break through to the hearts of the majority of people in Britain. This vision was articulated with passion on the Channel 4 debate by actress Sheila Hancock. She recognised that many people are suffering but said it was wrong to blame the EU for the problems the world faces today. Having explained the background to the EU as a project to ensure peace in Europe after two terrible wars, she focused on the problems of today: “There’s ecological problems, environmental problems, there’s huge discrepancy between rich and poor worldwide, and that should worry us. Because that leads to extremity. Surely, surely we can solve those problems better if we’re united than if we close ourselves and shut our eyes”.
So we are now going to leave the EU, but that won’t make these problems go away, and we cannot isolate ourselves from them. There will still be poverty and inequality and injustice in our own society as well as war, refugee movement, environmental and economic challenges across the world. We still have a duty to do all we can to address those issues and to contribute to the global project set by the Sustainable Development Goals.
I’m afraid that many “leave” voters have bought into the idea that leaving the EU will give them a better chance of a job and better access to public services as migration pressures ease. But they will, I believe, be disappointed. We will continue to need migrants to ensure our economy succeeds, and we will have to invest the taxes they pay to provide the services they need (if we don’t invest the pressure on services will continue). That would be the case whatever the outcome of the vote. The pressures of austerity will not be eased by Brexit, but will almost certainly be made more acute.
But of course it is not so simple. There is an underlying problem in our society which has generated the disaffection that has led to this referendum outcome. Large parts of our population are feeling alienated from our politics, unconnected to the wider world, and unable to find hope for a better future for their children. Those who have suffered most from the effects of the financial crisis, recession and austerity are the ones who were most likely to have voted to leave the EU. Threats of further recession have not swayed them – what have they got left to lose? The shifting of blame for their woes from recession and austerity to immigration and the EU has succeeded for the time being, but the error of this blame-shifting will become increasingly evident. Brexit will not give the marginalised and excluded in our society more than a passing breeze of hope.
So, we now need a long term project for the UK (still including Scotland, I hope). The referendum outcome makes this more evident and important than ever. That project is to build a more tolerant, more socially mobile, more inclusive society in which everyone has a stake and can see the real possibility of a better future for themselves and their children and grandchildren; a society in which we have the strength and values to connect to the wider world (not just in Europe but beyond) seeing, feeling and acting as though, in Jo Cox’s phrase, we have more in common than divides us, valuing and enacting solidarity with those, in the UK and all over the world, who are oppressed, exploited and left behind.
According to the OECD, the UK has, to our shame, one of the highest levels of inequality and the lowest level of intergenerational social mobility in the rich world – your educational achievement and your income depend on those of your parents and you have the least chance to break out of poverty.
Inequality and relatively deprived family background damage a child’s chance of attaining higher education, of gaining skills and even of employment. Inequality and lack of social mobility even seems to hit the growth of national income. The OECD study (https://www.oecd.org/eco/growth/NERO-22-June-2015-income-inequality-social-mobility-and-economic-growth.pdf) concludes: “In general, policies that help to limit or reverse inequality may not only make societies less unfair, but also wealthier.” The authors suggest that the one of the most effective measures to address these problems is promoting access to education, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The dissatisfaction that appears to have been blamed on immigration and the European Union is rather the result of policies that have deprived people at the bottom end of the income distribution of the chance to change their prospects. The solution is not to leave the EU nor to cut immigration, but rather to change our education system! We can do that whether we are inside the EU or outside. Perhaps the referendum result is the wake-up call we need to change our society for the better. Education is the key. But what kind of education system do we need to build if we are to transform our society into one which is tolerant, environmentally aware, socially inclusive and socially mobile, outward looking and globally connected, economically successful and able to contribute to the achievement of the Global Goals? Where can we find the inspiration and vision for such a system and what do we need to do differently?
I believe we already know the answer – it was written down and agreed in 1989, in Article 29.1 of the world’s most widely ratified human rights Convention – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UK ratified the Convention in 1991, under the Conservative Government led by John Major. It is worth quoting in full as I believe this must be our manifesto for a better future.
Article 29 1.
States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:
(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;
(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;
(c) The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;
(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;
(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.
Instead, we have a fragmented educational system in which teachers are not sufficiently appreciated, trusted, cherished and respected, where the focus is more on tests than values, and where well-off and well-educated parents are able to play the system to secure places at the best schools for their own children. We have an education system that entrenches privilege rather than one which promotes social mobility and gives the best chance to every child to develop his or her potential regardless of social background. We have a system in which one in five British students leave school without acquiring basic skills, rather than one which offers the best start in life to all.
The solution is not more testing or more free schools or academisation, it is about creating a system of education that trusts and cherishes teachers, and operates in a framework of universal values. Better to focus on the values set out in Article 29, rather than those of any one religion or culture – on values that bring people together rather than separate them. It is about building a curriculum and relationships that strengthen children’s self-respect, that value collaboration and that keep our children safe. It is about making school a joyous experience rather than one characterised by exam stress and bullying. In such an environment children will thrive and achieve, as will our economy and society.
Unicef UK’s Rights Respecting School Award programme shows that this vision can be a reality in British schools – it already brings the Article 29 vision to more than 4000 UK schools. The award is based on principles of equality, dignity, respect, non-discrimination and participation. As schools implement the RRSA standards, they enable children and young people to make informed decisions and to grow into confident, active and empowered citizens. The impact is profound, bringing improved self-esteem and well-being, reductions in bullying and exclusions, improved attendance, greater engagement in learning, positive attitudes towards diversity in society and the reduction of prejudice, enhanced moral understanding and support for global justice.
In the referendum, the young voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Now they won’t have that opportunity. But we all now have an opportunity to re-make our society, based on a positive vision of inclusion, mobility and solidarity; to overcome the alienation and hopelessness that so many have expressed through their referendum votes, and to heal the divisions which have deepened as the vicious referendum debate progressed.
In this next battle for hearts and minds, our teachers are our most vital assets, on the front line to a better future. We need more and better. We need to give them our greatest trust and respect and support. We were told by both sides that Britain could be better if we followed their advice. It can be. But whether it is or not doesn’t depend primarily on our negotiations with the EU, but more importantly on how we now rebuild a better society, united in diversity, bringing hope and solidarity to the dispossessed and disadvantaged and leaving no-one behind. In that noble enterprise, education is the key and Article 29 should be our guide.