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How Brexit changed the way politics is taught

Teachers and lecturers tell us how they're teaching politics in the age of Brexit, and what their pupils make of it.

In decades gone by, politics was a subject of principles and constants, but Brexit has created a more fluid, unpredictable and divisive politics. What does that mean for those trying to teach every twist and turn of the Brexit process? How have lecturers and teachers seen their classrooms and lecture theatres change in the last three years?

Five educators across the country told us how Brexit has affected their jobs – and what their pupils make of it.

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"Events move faster than lesson plans"

Stephen Clark, head of history and politics, Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, Hertfordshire

In the early 2010s, when presented with a choice of questions on an exam paper, students would be most likely to talk about about electoral reform, or whether the House of Lords should be abolished, or when the British Barack Obama would appear. Britain’s relationship with the EU would have been the question on the exam paper that few candidates ever chose to answer. Now, it is the central topic of most lessons. 

When Douglas Carswell – then still a Conservative MP – visited our school in 2013, there were more questions about his advocacy of open primary elections than his support for leaving the EU. Now, the minutiae of Brexit are dissected in class. Three very bright students were on Friday asking detailed questions about EU competencies and whether an Order of Council could be used to overrule the Benn Act.

Nigel Farage visited us in 2010, and advocated a Norway-style relationship with the EU. Many Liberal Democrats used to call themselves Eurosceptics. Now, there are only two labels: Remainers and Leavers. I try to encourage students to see that there are lots of possibilities in the UK’s relationship with the EU and lots of different shades of opinion. Strong opinions on Brexit are inevitable among young people, but I want them to understand why others might think differently. Debate is important, but we also stress the importance of disagreeing well.

There is nothing like hearing from the key individuals involved in the Brexit debate themselves, seeing how they interact with students and argue their case. Young people can see through fakery perhaps better than older voters. When Jacob Rees-Mogg visited our school, he answered every question clearly and directly, as did David Lidington. Nigel Farage arrived early, left late, was engaging throughout, shook hundreds of hands and even laughed when a student tricked him into signing a blank sheet of paper with an EU flag on the reverse side.

Undoubtedly, Brexit has raised interest in politics among young people. The number of students taking A level politics rose by 10 per cent between 2018 and 2019. Debates around campus about Brexit are common. I set “Why did Leave win?” as the opening essay for new politics A-level students, as I think all of UK politics was changed by the Brexit vote and until we understand the imperatives that led to the country voting Leave, we will have an incomplete understanding of the politics of our country.

I am proud that some of my students have become activists on the Leave side. I am equally proud of those who have become active campaigners for Remain. As educators, it isn’t our role to tell students what to think on an issue like Brexit, but we can help them become clearer in their arguments and more aware of the possible counterarguments to their opinions.

Sometimes lessons must be re-planned because events move so fast. I was scheduled to teach a lesson on the Supreme Court on the morning of the Miller judgement. The lesson became watching the news and discussing previous major rulings of the Supreme Court. In 2016, politics students took an exam on the very afternoon Jo Cox was murdered. They came out of the exam hall, turned on their phones and learned of the tragic murder of a young MP.

"Factual statements are seen as opinions"

Luke Watson, teacher of politics at Aquinas Sixth Form College, Stockport

I teach in a Catholic sixth form college with a comprehensive intake in Stockport. The student body seems to be relatively Brexity, and it’s becoming more that way. Over the last three years the main change has been not that it’s become more aggressive or more conflictual, it’s just become more complicated.

Three years ago, we had good numbers coming in to study politics but it seems to have dropped off a little. That may also be to do with reforms to A levels and the fact the course has got harder, but I do wonder whether the whole conversation around Brexit is putting students off.

The most difficult thing, and this was certainly true even two or three years ago, is that the most basic factual statements can become controversial. I remember saying early on in 2017 that Brexit was going to be complicated, difficult and would take up lots of civil service bandwidth. One young man immediately responded: "How can you say it’s going to be complicated?" Sometimes it feels like I could say something absolutely factual about the way the constitution works, and they would take it as information and education, but if I make a statement about the factual background to Brexit, it's open season to challenge it, as if it’s something I happen to think rather than something I know as a matter of fairly lengthy research.

I was in a discussion with a politics enrichment class on a Monday evening. These people are self-selecting, and there’s around 15-20 of them. We did a straw poll on where they stood on the issue, and it was two-thirds towards the Brexit side of things. They were generally quite firmly of the view it should happen soon, so this "get Brexit done" narrative seems to be cutting through.

I wouldn’t say the tenor of the discussion has become more disrespectful. I just think there’s no trust in the process, and people are arguing past each other. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of middle ground, which is odd for something so complicated. People have very firmly held views, and they don’t seem to listen to each other.

"Students don't want to state their own opinions"

Delia Dumitrescu, lecturer in media and cultural politics, University of East Anglia

I moved to the UK immediately after the Brexit referendum, and I started teaching in January 2017, so I can’t really compare it to how it was before. However, I have a module where I ask people to discuss current topics in public opinion, in a group-based activity. One group chose Brexit. What was striking was how they refused to engage in controversies. Everyone knows it’s a divisive topic. They were taking a very descriptive approach, not taking a stance, at least not in the presentation. If you engage students on this topic, they are very reluctant to offer their own opinion, and it’s also difficult for them to critically evaluate arguments on both sides.

Brexit has had this effect, in my experience, that students don't want to state their own opinion and justify it, or to critically evaluate the arguments of others. For other topics, they do. I don’t think they don’t have an opinion. I think that because the atmosphere in the university is nothing compared to parliament – it’s very friendly – and because Brexit is so divisive, it’s not the same as discussing other policies. Even immigration is less divisive than Brexit.

I guess it’s much easier if you’re teaching about an event in the past that was very divisive, because it’s over. There is more distance, you can look at facts. But with current events, it’s difficult to find the right balance.

"There's a lot of confusion"

Jilly McCord, politics teacher, Dollar Academy, Scotland

Because we're in Scotland, we have a slightly different situation. The independence referendum was a more emotive and divisive issue in our classrooms. Brexit wasn’t so divisive beforehand, but even since then, it’s hard to find a pupil who would make an argument to leave the European Union.

Even the conservative cohort in our school doesn’t make a strong argument for Brexit – or voice that argument – because there is a strong feeling for Remain. I think in Scotland there’s probably a reluctance to voice a pro-Brexit stance. It was the same with Scottish independence – there was a silent majority who didn’t want it, but didn’t make as loud a noise as the pro-independence campaign.

In Scotland, political literacy is taught from an early age – modern studies is taught all the way through senior school – but there’s a lot of confusion over Brexit. Many 12- and 13-year-olds don’t really understand the issue. A lot of them switch off at the word "Brexit", because they think it’s too complicated. We’re trying to simplify it, but there’s a lot of complex things going on. It’s difficult to explain the Irish backstop and the Supreme Court in an hour or two a week. We have to say there are two sides to every story. I’m always aware we can’t show our own biases, but we have to unpick arguments that are incorrect, I suppose, on both sides.

I think it’s really important we teach young people political literacy and an understanding of the world around them. Unless someone is giving them a neutral but informed voice, it’d be difficult to access politics now and understand what is going on.

"Young people adapt very quickly"

Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester

I teach a course to third-year students every year on elections and voters in Britain. They’re an engaged bunch because it’s an elective. Teaching the course has been a valuable reality check for me, because I think it has helped me to remember that the very polarised, very heated stuff we see in Westminster and on politics Twitter isn’t necessarily reflected everywhere. Even among students who study this as a choice, you don’t see that to anywhere near that same extent.

Students have remained open-minded about the complexities of what’s involved in the conflict over Brexit in the broader electoral conflict. You always get students who are already engaged in politics, they’re activists, but the other thing I’ve always found, and that hasn’t changed, is they are very respectful of each other’s views and keen to hear other views to their own.

I’ve had students both supportive of Brexit, Ukip activists, Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem activists. They listen to each other. They’ll quite passionately disagree, but it’s open-minded, respectful disagreement. It’s very much what I like about my job. It’s very easy, seeing this through the lens of elite debate, that we’re reaching some unbridgeable crisis of tribal divide. But these bright young people coming through don’t behave like that when they’re put together in a room.

That’s a wonderful thing, in a way: they, more than most, have an awful lot to worry about with the current situation but they don’t let it spill over into an unthinking hostility. I’ve never had a shouting match in my classes.

You get to feel pretty old, even at 39, teaching 21-year-olds every year. Young people adapt to new realities very quickly. It’s the only reality they’ve ever known. The students I’m teaching now have no memory of a world before the financial crisis, and have really only been politically aware since Brexit. At 39, the EU referendum doesn’t feel that long ago. If you’re 21, it must feel like an aeon. They adapt to these new realities very quickly. The previous reality is second-hand to them. They didn’t live through it as adults. That’s why I don’t think they get as heated as older people do.