After the referendum – creating stability

At a time of great uncertainty, schools have a role in creating an atmosphere of stability and purpose. This is particularly important since we know that around 75% of the 18 to 25 age bracket voted ‘Remain’ as opposed to significantly fewer of the older generations. Self-evidently, it is the future of the young that is most affected by the democratic decision of the whole and schools will need to acknowledge possible wide-spread feelings of anger and frustration amongst the muddle and the fear and powerlessness felt more generally. So, how practically can this be done?

I believe the Brexit campaign succeeded because it played upon the concerns of some parts of the population with the issue of immigration and because a significant number of people felt disenfranchised, voiceless and forgotten and decided to use the referendum as a means to protest against the ‘establishment’.

Schools are already playing their part in upholding Fundamental British Values that include tolerance and respect for ‘the other’ as well as supporting the government’s Prevent strategy regarding radicalisation. Schools must now step up to the mark vigorously ahead of the summer break to give out – by living out – a message of respect. At St Mary’s School, Cambridge we live by 12 core values established by our foundress Mary Ward over 400 years ago. One of these on which we have been focusing this year has been ‘Embracing diversity’; as a Christian school in the Catholic tradition with a substantial number of international boarders, we actively welcome girls of all faiths and from secular backgrounds, from Europe, the Commonwealth and other countries from around the world.

As the political scene will continue to change we need to be engaging with young people. In broad terms, they need to be told what the consequences of the referendum might be. There is a lot of hysteria on both sides and some straight facts will be helpful. Of course, we can’t predict what will happen but we can tell students what kinds of things may occur and what these may mean in basic terms: about political leaders of political parties; elections (will one be called to confirm the new Conservative leader as Prime Minister?); and referenda (perhaps a second one in Scotland). This might be done via Citizenship lessons; these classes have always been one of two poor relations of PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), which itself is the poor relation of the broader curriculum of culture and sport, which is the poor relation of the traditional academic diet of schools… Maybe Citizenship can really find its place and time both on the curriculum including Politics at A Level and History at GCSE level as well as in clubs and societies.

More broadly still, schools need to do more in telling their students about how democracy manifests itself in their own areas and further afield and the connections between these different tiers of democracy. Also it’s important for students to know why we need politics and how it works, both well and badly, and why this might be the case. So, showing the relationship between the participatory democracy of a school and wider democratic structures would be useful, too.

This might have the added benefit of helping those young people feeling a sense of disenfranchised voicelessness to feel a part of a democratic community at school – a microcosm of wider societal democracy – through active student councils; feedback by students to teachers through discussion, surveys and questionnaires; peer elected schemes, such as form captains and charity representatives; volunteer schemes such as IT ambassadors or peer counsellors; and for older students, peer and staff elected posts such as Head Girls or Boys and Games and Music Captains. Students need to be taking assemblies, and acting as worship leaders in faith schools, in order to have the confidence and gain the experience of speaking out clearly and passionately, yet in a nuanced and sensitive manner. As Speaking and Listening have become less of a focus in formal examinations in English and Modern Foreign Languages, so the role of lunchtime activities in terms of debating and discussion groups, such clubs as Model United Nations, becomes increasingly important.

Financial awareness is the other poor relation of PSHE. As the country struggles to work its way through a weak pound, the City looking initially to be in dire straits – despite the calming hand of the Bank of England – imports in a muddle and exports in a quagmire, financial literacy and awareness needs air time, in junior schools too.

Schools have a little time ahead of the summer break in which to calm and reassure children, time over the summer break for discernment of the curriculum, and the opportunity to make a difference at the start of the new academic year. In the looming gap that is the summer break, I would suggest that parents and grandparents have a significant part to play in discussing the matter with their children and grandchildren. On a lighter note, my little boy has now understood that the EU is something more than just Euro 2016; he is now beginning, aged 10, to discuss the European and UK ramifications with his French father and his English mother!

If we can take a grip of some of these matters, we stand a chance of engaging with our young people and opening up constructive dialogue as a model for what needs to be tackled in social cohesion, trade and industry, politics and banking. The country has been banging the drum of ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ in education and now is surely the time to show such characteristics, as we all metaphorically gird our loins to face the future – ‘glorious opportunity’ or not. I for one will be steering St Mary’s School, Cambridge on its course by keeping calm and carrying on.

 

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s Cambridge

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