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How Schools Can Help the Next Generation Understand the World After Brexit

01/07/2016 12:25 | Updated 01 July 2016

A few hours after the referendum result we concluded an analysis of the implications for schools with the following statement:

"The ultimate antidote is to be found in the young people you work with. We face a different future: how will you help them prepare for it? How will you help them do better than we did?"

I want to build on that now. We lack political leadership at a time of crisis. We see the reverberations in the fears of pupils in our schools about deportation and racism. But school leaders are, well, leaders. In the absence of political leadership, they too can exercise leadership in their communities. Maybe they can make a better go of it.

We have just been through a massive exercise in citizenship. It should have been glorious, yet it feels unsatisfactory.

The people made their choice and in a democracy we honour that choice. I don't want to address the merits of the decision here. Yet people also made their choice without the full facts. They were told that the knowledge of experts was unimportant: by someone who used to hammer home the importance of knowledge. It has been said that we live in an era of post-fact politics, where the truth doesn't matter as much as emotion. Trump is the master of this - just brazen it out. Then delete the homepage of the website with all the promises on it.

People made choices in a climate of fear, with some politicians pandering to the worst instincts of our society. Every leader faces a choice. They can speak to the part of us that is angry and fearful, or they can speak to the part which is optimistic and generous. All too often it is easier to exploit anger than hope. This is a dangerous game though. It licences a more aggressive and intolerant society.

How do we help young people navigate this terrain? What does it mean to teach citizenship in the aftermath of Brexit?

The first thing to note is that the facts matter. Citizenship is, at least in part, about informed decision-making, of weighing arguments and choosing amongst them, spotting the fudges and misdirections. We can rely on warm feelings and gut instincts or we can bring the facts to bear.

This means that knowledge is the foundation of citizenship. History, geography, economics, science. These matter as the raw material of an informed and sceptical citizenry. Numeracy matters - if only because it might help people calculate a rebate properly. We cannot counter a post-fact, post-modern politics with a post-fact, post-modern curriculum. The results of the referendum should be a wake-up call to all progressives who oppose a knowledge rich curriculum.

But knowledge is insufficient. It must be motivated by a vision and by values. It must be used. This means helping to nurture a generation who are not merely there to implement the goals of others, to do the tasks set for them, with their hard won expertise, as good little technocrats. It needs a generation who will ask why as well as how. Who will pose difficult questions, dissent, mobilise and lead. There is too often a strain within our education debates that sounds like the objective is creating good workers, rather than awkward citizens.

This shouldn't be a selfish demand for their rights and privileges. It should be about responsibility and the interconnections that help us all thrive. Increasingly I see the importance of debating clubs, adventure activities and community service as components of a rounded education. They will help mobilise and direct the vital knowledge gained in the classroom. And we need to cultivate scientific mindsets that see challenge and critique as the best way to reduce errors.

There is much for school leaders to reflect upon within our current turmoil. And much they can do to prevent a repeat.

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