BREXIT is the failure of education

Here is one of the enduring questions of modern political times: why do British working people so consistently vote for political parties against their own interests? Ten years of inhumane, economy-crippling austerity and fiscal attacks on the poor, the sick and the vulnerable has been a regime based on broad consent.

The answer has many parts:

  • a deeply-rooted historical admiration for feudal overlords (look no further than Downton Abbey);
  • the implausible hope that is as globally successful as grass, that you vote for the wealthy and wealth will rub off (in Reagan/Thatcher terms, ‘trickle down’);
  • the awful distortion of Darwin that the wealthy and powerful are more evolved and that it makes sense to put the most advanced of the species in charge;
  • the weird case of social psychology in which voting for the greedy and self-interested is akin to self-harm (ie. we blame ourselves for our pathetic failure to achieve economic security);
  • self-repeating error.

Now, each and all of these are educable – which is to say, that they can be put through the strainer of good and complex information and come out differently. The reason that they reflect a lack of education is that each and every one is the product of poor judgement, and if there is one thing that a decent education promises it is the improvement of judgements that are critical to our wellbeing. What makes this state of affairs worse is that it is predictable – and has been predicted. In the late-1980s the Westminster City Council, led by Dame Shirley Porter, implemented a policy of selling council houses to working class people who were thought, as home-owners, more likely then to vote Conservative. (The Council was subject to numerous investigations as a result of which, in the mid-1990s Dame Porter and her Deputy Council Leader were jointly fined more than £12m – which, in the end, they did not pay.)

Why do we not prepare our citizens for such life-changing decisions?

Well, we do not. Here, for example, are the learning targets for the National Curriculum, Key Stage 3 in Citizenship:

Pupils should be taught about:

  • the development of the political system of democratic government in the United Kingdom, including the roles of citizens, Parliament and the monarch
  • the operation of Parliament, including voting and elections, and the role of political parties
  • the precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom
  • the nature of rules and laws and the justice system, including the role of the police and the operation of courts and tribunals
  • the roles played by public institutions and voluntary groups in society, and the ways in which citizens work together to improve their communities, including opportunities to participate in school-based activities
  • the functions and uses of money, the importance and practice of budgeting, and managing risk

Note: there is nothing about the sociology of voting (eg. analysis of voting patterns and economic class), moral obligation and political values, human rights, social justice and so on. But there is an instruction to teach the ‘importance…of budgeting”.

Whatever the make-up of the 52% Leave vote in 2016, Brexit was always, as we know, the expression of disillusion with an election-based, representative democracy, fed by a scandalously impoverished and paternalistic public education campaign – on both sides of the argument. The lies allegedly told on both sides were nothing as against the public’s dependence on hearing them – they had little else to go on. Our inability to distinguish an outrageous campaign flourish from verified information was a historical calamity, but one of our own making. For me, as a democratic educator, this was one of the most profound failures of schooling and higher education, of a threadbare, timorous and marginalised Citizenship Education. We need a second referendum – but even more, we need decent public education that allows people to make proper judgements about the quality and validity of campaign claims. We need curriculum reform that places conversation about citizenship at its core.


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