It is, without doubt, the most contentious and most talked-about political issue of our generation. Brexit: an issue that has divided the country (almost exactly) in half, which has dominated the political landscape for three solid years, and which continues to rumble on as prime ministers come and go.
Amidst the thousands of column inches covering Britain’s exit from the European Union has been large-scale debate on the implications for different sectors. Will we see the big financial organisations move their headquarters out of London? Will small businesses be hindered by difficult European trade conditions? Will tech start-ups shunt the capital in favour of other silicon hubs?
At the forefront of that debate has been the impact on public services, not least the health service. Many have raised concerns about the ability of the NHS to continue to operate effectively should thousands of its overseas workers lose their rights to work here.
Little seems to have been written, however, on the impact of Brexit on the education system – namely, schools.
The challenges faced by UK schools today are well known. A reduction in real-terms funding of nearly 8% since 2010 has made it harder to balance the books and led many to seek alternative routes to additional funding.
But it’s another challenge that brings the impact of Brexit into stark focus: the recruitment and retention of teachers. Finding good teachers is hard and Department for Education (DfE) figures show that in recent years, schools in England have relied heavily on teachers from European countries to meet their staffing needs.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of qualified teachers from EU countries rose from 2,000 to 5,000 – with the bulk coming from Spain, Greece, Poland and Romania.
With this in mind, it’s understandable that the UK’s eventual departure from the European Union, whether with a deal or no deal, will likely raise concerns for those responsible for the recruitment and retention of teachers in England.
The government has sought to give reassurances – including that it will recognise teaching qualifications gained in other EU countries up until December 2020. But, arguably, the effects are already being seen.
The period between 2016 and the end of 2018 saw a decrease of 25% in EU teachers applying for qualified teacher status (QTS) in England – suggesting the threat of Brexit is already draining the pool of potential applicants from Europe.
And the demand for such teachers looks likely to rise rather than fall in coming years.
In April, Baroness Coussins, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, warned that around 35% of modern foreign languages teachers are non-UK EU nationals. What’s more, the DfE estimates that secondary schools in England will need 15,000 more teachers between 2018 and 2025 to meet a 15% rise in pupil numbers.
In response to that challenge, initiatives are being introduced to help increase the number of qualified teachers coming on to the market – not least through fast-track courses and bespoke programmes to help “skill up” teaching assistants and others who are already working on the education system.
However, the fact remains that schools have a reliance on EU-qualified teachers and, while the bulk of the debate on the impact of Brexit continues to focus heavily on other sectors and even other public services, the need to consider the impact on schools is very real indeed.