Supporting Young People in Post-Referendum Britain

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By Sarah Soyei: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

“Immigrants are the reason we voted to leave the EU” 10 year old pupil in an EqualiTeach workshop.

On the morning of Friday 24th June, it became clear that Britain had experienced an historic vote that could potentially change the face of the UK forever. In a tight referendum 52% of those who participated voted that they would like the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

As the days have passed, it has become clear that a minority of people have interpreted the result as legitimising their feelings of anger and hatred towards anyone whom they perceive to be an immigrant. The National Police Chiefs’ Council revealed that hate crimes reported to the police rose 57% between Thursday 23rd June and Sunday 26th June compared to the corresponding days four weeks ago. The Muslim Council of Britain has compiled a list of 100 hate crimes in the three days following the result and in Huntingdon, cards were pushed through the letterboxes of Polish residents, calling them vermin and instructing them to leave.

This feeling can certainly in part be attributed to the messages put forward by some people within the Leave campaign, who fought the referendum on an anti-immigration platform. A poster produced by UKIP featured a huge line of immigrants (who were actually refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia) next to the words ‘Breaking Point’. Leaflets posted through letterboxes said that 76 million Turkish people would soon have the right to live in Britain, with Iraq and Syria coloured in pink to imply that they would be next.

However, it is important to recognise that this anti-immigrant sentiment did not appear out of nowhere, it has been growing for years, stoked by some politicians and sections of the media. Prior to the general election last year, EqualiTeach wrote to the British press imploring them to report more responsibly on immigration, but since then the problem has got worse. A collage of the Daily Express front covers gathered over the last 6 months provides a stark illustration of how acceptable this has become.

Over the past few years, in our THINK! and Second Thoughts workshops with young people in schools across the country, we have found anti-immigrant sentiment to exist even in classrooms where the majority of pupils are first or second generation immigrants. Many young people are unsure of the precise meaning of the word ‘immigrant’, but the word is often seen as an insult. Immigrants are people who ‘sneak into the country illegally’, ’cause trouble’, ‘bring guns and terrorism’, and ‘take jobs’.

For some people, the referendum has taken this anti-immigrant feeling to the next level, there is an idea that ‘the people have spoken’ and this outcome means not only that immigrants should now leave the country, but that people have the right to abuse others in the street. Far right groups feel emboldened and empowered by the vote, causing increased feelings of fear and exclusion amongst Black and Asian British people as well as those who were not born in the UK.

It is the job of all of us, whatever our views about the outcome of the referendum to ensure that our schools are inclusive settings and that all of our pupils feel safe and welcome. The National Association of Head Teachers has stated that:

“School leaders are reporting to us that some of their young students are worrying about their future. They are fearful of a potential rise in racism and community conflict. They are concerned about their prospects in an uncertain and isolated Britain. NAHT strongly urges the government to give pupils from the European Union better assurance that they will be able to complete their school education without interruption; that they and their families remain welcome and valued members of the communities they call home.”

In a time of fear and uncertainty, such as this, it is important that young people are provided with the opportunity to explore their feelings; that they are given opportunities to talk about the referendum and what it means for them and others. Pupils need to be equipped with skills to think critically about information, reject prejudice and hate and feel confident to speak up and ask for help and support if they need it.

EqualiTeach has worked with the teaching union, NASUWT over the past year to produce an educational resource called Universal Values. This resource was produced in response to the duty to promote Fundamental British Values, which has been interpreted by some schools as a requirement to espouse stereotypes about Britain and hang Union Jacks throughout the school. This approach can further increase alienation amongst those who feel that they don’t fit into this vision of Britain.

However, the Fundamental British Values are defined as: democracy, individual liberty, rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. All of these values underpin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and rethinking the values as universal prevents any conflation between British stereotypes and history, and values education and helps us to consider this duty in an inclusive fashion.

Whilst promoting these values is not explicitly about Britishness, giving young people the opportunity to explore, understand and celebrate their own personal and social identity and the identities of others can be really valuable. In undertaking this work, pupils can recognise that we all have multiple layers to our identities and that there is not just one way to belong to Britain, which can support pupils to express their own, individual identity and help pupils to develop mutual respect and understanding of others.

The Universal Values resource is downloadable free of charge and provides information as to how to open up discussions about values and sensitive and controversial issues with young people, how to encourage young people to think critically and how to effectively challenge prejudicial attitudes in order to create positive change.

As well as opening up discussions and providing effective values education, it is vital that schools respond swiftly, consistently and effectively to any prejudice-related incidents which occur amongst staff and pupils. Last year, EqualiTeach worked with Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire councils to produce some robust guidelines to support schools to effectively recognise and respond to prejudice related incidents, which are also available to download free of charge.

The document is called Equally Safe and provides clear information as to how schools can identify incidents, develop robust policies and procedures to ensure that all staff, including lunchtime supervisors and teaching assistants, who may be more likely to witness incidents than teachers, know how to respond when an incident occurs, and how incidents should be challenged, recorded and followed up. Schools need to clearly communicate to young people how they can report incidents and how they will be dealt with so that they feel able to speak up about any bullying they may be receiving.

One way of doing this, implemented by Varndean Secondary School in Brighton has been to implement an equality allies initiative throughout the school. Pupils have created badges that teachers and pupils wear to demonstrate that they are an equality ally, they can either sign up to all areas of equality or to be an LGB ally or a Race Equality ally for example. This provides a visual signal for pupils so that they know who they can speak to if they have a problem.

Finally, it is important that we don’t just focus on those who seek to cause division and harm, but that we take notice of the huge swathes of people who are responding to these incidents of prejudice and hate with positivity and friendship.

On Sunday, the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK) in West London was daubed with graffiti, but on Monday it was showered with cards and flowers offering support. One of the cards said:

“I am so sorry to hear about what happened yesterday. We the Brits are grateful to you for fighting alongside us in the war and now for the enormous contribution you make to our society. We love you.”

A Florist in Bristol has left roses out for people to take away, with a message of support for immigrants.

A Twitter user called Allison, from London has put forward the idea that people should attach an empty safety pin to their clothes as a symbol for those experiencing racism and abuse that they have an ally, and this idea has gained traction online, using the hashtag #safetypin, with celebrities such as Nadiya Hussein retweeting the idea to spread awareness.

Those of us working with young people have the opportunity to raise awareness and demonstrate to young people that they too have the opportunity to be active citizens, to stand up against prejudice and show, as Jo Cox, so memorably stated “We have far more in common with each other than that which divides us.” We need to celebrate those who fight for unity and we need to join them.

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