To an extent, it doesn’t matter what the decision was. What really matters is how we deal with it. And this is where – we hope and trust – two key values embedded in British education come into their own.
British education is renowned worldwide – much more so than practitioners based in the UK often seem to realise, bombarded as they are with PISA statistics and national examination results which emphasise that the practical outcomes of this education are ‘not good enough’. These statistics and results are part of a wider debate, of course, about what education is actually for; arguably, the practical outcomes demanded in an exam-focused culture are not really what we want or need in our society today. However, this debate is peripheral to a fundamental and shared understanding of what makes a British education truly great, namely its core values. These are the values that are part of the very fabric of British schools – in the UK and overseas – and that are explicitly and implicitly taught every day; these are the values that are admired and appreciated worldwide.
The first of these values is tolerance. While this may have a hollow ring about it, given that fears about an imbalance of immigration in the pre-Brexit campaigns tipped over at times into the xenophobic, fundamentally, the UK is actually an immensely tolerant place – and tolerance is taught and valued in schools. This tolerance – and its cousin, respect for individuals – comes from a belief that every human being deserves to be heard, and that we need to teach young people ways in which to listen, consider and disagree if necessary, but without causing harm. The outpouring of shared grief and the consequent solidarity across political, social and almost any other boundaries which followed the recent murder of the MP Jo Cox was a testament to how intolerance is the only thing that cannot legitimately be tolerated in the UK.
The second of these values is critical reflection. While at first glance not a value at all, but rather a process, in fact a belief in critical reflection in its broadest interpretations – from opposition politics at a national level to careful sifting of facts from opinions in everyday conversation – is so deeply embedded in the UK values framework that it is indistinguishable from a value itself. Critical reflection is what keeps hegemonies in check; note how concern over the unelected, unaccountable elements of the governing structures of the European Union has been, at times almost subconsciously, a major factor on the pro-Leave side of the Brexit argument. Critical reflection underpins the success of British education throughout the ages and is the key to this success; as a result it is highly sought after by practitioners in other education systems, who in many cases envy the freedom that UK teachers give their students to question, criticise and think independently, even when this brings the risk of conflict.
These key values are not entirely unique to Britain – they are visible and are lived well in a number of other cultures. But they are such an integral and powerful part of the education system in the UK that they are inextricable from it. These are the values on which the UK is building its future generations, and this is what gives hope that out of the current political turmoil will come a national and international debate that leads us all to greater engagement with one another, and greater harmony. No-one ever said that it was going to be easy, but with the right foundation, as manifested in our educational principles – together with a commitment to seek forward-thinking solutions – we all stand a better chance.