It has now been six months since the referendum results revealed British voters’ decision to withdraw from the European Union, and schools in London are beginning to adjust to this new phase of history. As schools are now required to promote ‘Fundamental British Values’ I was interested in understanding how teachers in highly diverse schools were now tackling the global and local aspects of citizenship education.
It turns out that Brexit is dominating their thoughts: teachers in London’s most diverse schools see Brexit as a threat to the schools’ identity and nature.
Teachers said the need to address British voters’ desire to increase control over the county’s borders actually diminishes schools’ ability to engage with ‘British values’ as prescribed by the national curriculum. Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement last week that she would prioritise immigration control over the single market could well increase this concern. In extremely diverse schools, teachers were addressing ‘British Values’ as universal and global – and therefore relevant to their students whether they remain in the UK or not. One teacher described Brexit as a move that would decrease diversity and thus also diminish ‘mutual understanding’ within schools.
Moreover, teachers said Brexit was a particularly difficult subject for class discussion, since it could be interpreted by the students and also by students’ parents as an attack on them as being first or second generation migrants.
Global Citizenship Education (GCE), a growing educational phenomenon in many western and non-western countries, aims to prepare students to function in a modern globalized society and economy. It attempts to encourage empathy and intercultural understanding as well as proactive behavior to challenge existing power relations.
While carrying out my ethnographic study as an academic on sabbatical leave from Tel Aviv University – into how GCE is perceived and delivered in the most diverse inner London schools – I was surprised at first to be bombarded by references to Brexit as an event with high impact on teachers, making them more uneasy about talking about global issues in class. Perhaps more than other major world cities, London has substantial numbers of schools where the majority of students have English as a second language. Over 300 languages are currently spoken in London schools. In Tower Hamlets, for example, 76% of primary pupils have another mother tongue.
Such schools are ‘hyper-diverse’ not only in language, but in the students’ countries of origin and religious backgrounds too. They tend to be located in the city centers, near public housing and to serve low income families. So in addition to coping with deprivation, trauma that refugees may have suffered, and helping children adjust to life in the UK, these schools also find themselves at the centre of any conflicts among different groups. Therefore, while one key reason for including GCE in the curriculum is to help cope with increasing diversity in today’s classrooms, research shows that the picture is much more nuanced.
I also found that, despite working with students from many cultures, teachers’ perceptions of GCE accord with the traditional western vs. non-western binary divide. The global dimension was perceived as positive and desirable, but the so called ‘universal’ flavor of British values was celebrated, while the non-western aspect was positioned within category of ‘we are doing traditional dishes evening every year’.
At a time when many immigrants are finding the political atmosphere uncomfortable, schools should be thinking about the best ways to honour their cultures in CGE as well as the implications of Brexit when they redesign their curriculum strategies.
Photo by Frank Balsinger via Flickr Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode