Deal or no deal – what does Brexit mean for schools?
By Kate Hilpern
Amid all the talk of Brexit – which fills our newspapers on a daily basis and our broadcast media on an almost hourly basis – there has been surprisingly little speculation about the impact on UK schools. And yet leaders of schools in both sectors tell us they are worried about the legislation changes Brexit will bring, with few feeling prepared for it, deal or no deal.
The 2018 Independent Schools Council Census revealed that 10 per cent of students in the UK’s independent schools are from overseas compared to just six per cent across the sector, meaning private schools may be particularly affected. Changes to the eligibility of EU students to study in the UK and any increases in fees could seriously impact on student numbers and income for these schools.
Furthermore, as Faith Kitchen, director of heritage, education and art and private clients at Ecclesiastical insurance company, pointed out in her study on the issue, this could be intensified ‘if companies, and therefore the families of employees, relocate to mainland Europe as a reaction to Brexit and we see a large-scale exit of current students’.
Some pupils have already gone – and that goes for both sectors, says Imelda Reddington, immigration solicitor at Herrington Carmichael solicitors. ‘As governor of a London primary school, I can tell you many Eastern European families have left already because of concerns around Brexit and depending on whether we have a deal or no deal, it’s very hard to know how many more we may lose. And the talk of manufacturing sector companies closing their offices here and nobody really knowing what the banking sector will look like, there is even more uncertainty.’
UK state boarding schools will be impacted too, she adds, in that they will no longer be able to consider EU nationals for school places unless they have settled or pre settled status. ‘From 2021 EU nationals wanting to study in the UK will require a tier 4 student visa and they will not be eligible for state boarding places unless the schools obtain a Tier 4 licence which would be very complex due to the nature of funding for state schools.’
On the other hand, her colleague Bermeet Chhokar (also an immigration solicitor), says, ‘If we get a no deal Brexit and many children from the EU can no longer attend UK state schools as a result, it could make the independent sector more attractive and boost private school pupil recruitment.’ According to the government’s white paper, published just before Christmas, she explains, ‘only private schools will be able to sponsor EU children who come to the UK for their schooling after 2021.’
Other potentially good news for the independent sector, they believe, is the UK sector having become more popular than the US to families from Asia. ‘The drop in the pound related to Brexit and the new two-year incentive to stay in the UK means we are seeing more families from Asian countries setting their sights on the UK to educate their children – that is a change even from the middle of last year,’ says Chhokar.
There are no such golden nuggets in store when it comes to the impact of Brexit on teaching staff, however. Over half of British schools and colleges directly employ EU nationals and many are unclear if those staff will be able to remain in the UK post Brexit. Depending on a deal or no deal – and the terms within the former – the sector could be left with potentially ruinous recruitment issues, especially when you consider that one in 10 of the schools surveyed by Ecclesiastical reported that EU staff were already planning to leave the UK following Brexit (and again Reddington has already seen some of them go).
All this in a climate when schools are already stretched in relation to teacher numbers. In January 2018, a Public Accounts Committee rReport revealed that schools only managed to fill around half of vacant positions during 2015/16 (when latest figures are available for), with the Department for Education missing its own recruitment targets in every one of the last five years.
Add to this the increase in teachers already leaving before retirement age and the decline in teacher training applications and it’s no wonder so many teachers are already recruited from overseas, with numbers rising. The latest data from the National College for Teaching and Leadership shows that 4,795 QTS awards were made to qualified teachers from the European Economic Area (EEA) countries in 2015-16 (a 10 per cent increase on the previous year) and 2,031 to teachers outside the EEA – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US (a 27 per cent increase from 2014-15).
To the great relief of many, a common visa system for all skilled workers post-Brexit has been enforced, in which there will be no cap on numbers and no requirement for a labour-market test. But as Reddington points out, there will be a minimum salary of £30,000, ‘making it harder to recruit from EU countries because the threshold is higher than many teacher salaries.’ (Wages for qualified teachers for England [excluding London] and Wales range between £23,720 - to £35,008.)
The pressure will be particularly high when it comes to modern foreign language teachers, many of whom hail from the EU. Schools already find it challenging to attract enough teachers in this area and take-up is in decline at both GCSE and A level.
‘We remain in a state of flux around Brexit and unfortunately the whispers from Westminster offer nothing certain,’ says Reddington. ‘But it’s important to keep the conversations alive so at the very least, families, teachers and schools themselves can start planning.’