If — and when — the UK leaves the EU, the political and economic changes that accompany Brexit could have a far-reaching impact on the British education system.If there’s one word that best sums up the public mood surrounding Brexit, it’s uncertainty. Through March 29th 2019 is the official deadline for Britain’s departure from the European Union, long, drawn-out disagreements over the exact nature of the withdrawal have left many in the education sector feeling none the wiser.
The long-term implications for our industry, then, remain speculative rather than concrete. But where does this leave EU students who are currently enrolled in British schools? And what of the thousands of EU nationals who teach in Britain?
These are questions that have lingered for the last three years. And as Brexit looms closer, the answers to such questions feel further away than ever.
An end to freedom of movementBefore we predict the effects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on the education system, we need to look at the wider legal implications for citizens.
Introduced in 1992 as the first major revision to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the Single European Act (SEA) enshrined “four freedoms” under EU law: the free movement of goods, services, capital and workers.
Though the first three of these freedoms remained uncontentious among the British public, the latter — freedom of movement for workers — was one of the key issues that underpinned the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum.
Overturning freedom of movement works both ways. Upon leaving the EU, British citizens are set to become “third country nationals”, meaning there’s no automatic right to readmission.
It’s unlikely that Britons will be required to have full visas to traverse EU borders, but there’s a strong likelihood that they will have to complete an online registration form before travelling and pay a €7 travel authorisation fee upon arrival.
Teaching staffFor EU nationals who live and work in the UK, further clarification is needed on how withdrawal will affect employment — especially if the final outcome of Brexit means having to relocate.
One such employment issue is the status of bilateral double taxation, which most EU member states currently have in place. Under these agreements, tax paid in the country of work is offset by tax owed in the country of residence. If this issue is not resolved, many EU nationals teaching in the UK may feel compelled to relocate.
A consequence of this is that the teaching of modern foreign languages in British schools will be negatively impacted — especially as most teachers in this field are from EU member states.
For subjects that are already difficult to recruit for and have declining take-up rates among GCSE and A-level students, the impact of withdrawing from the EU could be damaging to the provision of foreign languages.
As for British teachers working in the EU, the UK Department of Education has secured a deal with the European Schools system to continue to employ the 40 British teachers who have been seconded to work there until at least August 2020. These teachers teach around 28,000 students — hundreds of which are British.
Teaching qualificationsAnother issue that teaching staff will keep a keen eye on is the recognition of professional teaching qualifications that have been awarded within the EU. Since 1997, the UK has recognised more than 142,000 EU professional qualifications, while 27,000 decisions to recognise UK qualifications have been taken in other member states.
Despite Britain’s withdrawal looming, the UK government has pledged to continue recognising such qualifications until December 2020.
After that, the government hopes to reach an “ambitious agreement” on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. While these developments provide some leeway for EU nationals teaching in the UK (and vice versa), uncertainty will continue unless a solid agreement is reached.
Workers’ rights & recruitmentThe British government have, however, provided clarification on is the plan to continue workplace protections that were enacted under EU law.
This will ensure the same workforce rights and protections for teaching staff, including: annual leave; holiday pay and rest breaks; maternity and parental leave; health and safety requirements; and legislation to prevent discrimination and/or harassment.
After Brexit, it’s likely that the current teacher shortage will worsen. The Department of Education has missed its recruitment target for five years running, and the current lack of homegrown teachers requires schools to look further afield for new hires.
Though this makes it easier to recruit from outside the European Union, it becomes harder to recruit from the EU because the post-Brexit £30,000 immigrant salary threshold is higher than the salaries of some teachers. And with a general trend of school budgets being cut, recruiting EU workers would not be economically viable.
PupilsWhen it comes to Brexit’s impact on student numbers, independent schools are most likely to be affected. The 2018 Independent Schools Council Census showed that 10% of students in the UK’s independent schools are from overseas.
However, the extent to which Brexit affects pupil numbers depends on how individual families and businesses react to the withdrawal.
Large parts of the financial services industry, for example, are affected by passporting arrangements for things such as pension regulations and cross-border trading. As a result, thousands of jobs in the sector are set to relocate from London to the EU.
Many of the EU citizens affected by such changes have children who currently attend British independent schools.
In anticipation of widespread movement back to the EU, some private British schools — including southeast London’s Dulwich College and Berkshire’s Wellington College — are exploring the idea of expanding to mainland Europe to meet the increasing demand for UK-style education.
Some state schools will also be hard hit. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, an entire year group at a European state school in the village of Culham in Oxfordshire could be forced to abandon their education altogether.
Though a no-deal scenario is unlikely right now, such an outcome would mean Year 11 students at the Europa School UK would no longer be able to study for their European baccalaureate (EB).
Unsurprisingly, students and their parents feel stuck in a state of limbo and remain desperate for clarity. As one parent of a Europa School UK pupil told the Guardian, “We absolutely adore the school, but it’s a school that’s going to have a whole year group knocked out of it in a rather surreal way. My eldest daughter is in no-man’s land at the moment.”
School tripsSince the UK’s admission into the European Economic Community (EEC) — the precursor of the EU — in 1975, British citizens have been able to travel between member states with relative ease.
Such freedom of movement has enabled educational institutions to organise school trips abroad — providing young people with experiences that offer cultural immersion and the chance to engage with new environments.
For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, such an experience can be transformational. And for teachers, educational trips can provide an opportunity to forge important bonds with their students.
After Brexit, however, some schools may be dissuaded from organising such excursions due to the logistical obstacles that could accompany travelling to EU member states.
ConclusionRegardless of which path the UK decides to follow, it’s vital that the leaders of this country set a precedent that prepares all teaching staff and pupils for the substantial change that seems inevitable.
For those with a stake in the UK education system, the uncertainty at the heart of Brexit is a palpable source of anxiety. Under certain scenarios, relocating to another country is a very real possibility for teaching staff and families who are EU nationals, while other outcomes may lead to a chronic lack of provisions for underfunded schools.
A Brexit option that puts an end to the free movement of goods and services, for example, is likely to disrupt schools’ supply chains — from building materials to vital medicines to specialist equipment for SEN students. If a no-deal scenario takes place, goods will become temporarily unavailable and prices will rise — causing significant upheaval to the whole education sector.
According to 2018 research from Ecclesiastical Insurance, only a quarter of educational establishments have a plan in place Brexit. As the date the UK leaves the European Union potentially draws ever closer, educators will need to make preparations that will allow schools to benefit in a post-Brexit nation.
The pressing need to recruit new staff and acquire further investment for our schools means opening up ourselves to emergent partnerships and research opportunities beyond the EU. And to do that, our current education system needs a potential rethink — from the classroom all the way to the boardroom.