We are living in interesting times… throughout June, the School has been pulsating with debate – whether it was the DASH inter-house debating competition (in which Artemis emerged as winners in a very closely-fought final) or, more recently, the growing controversy over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Our mock EU referendum campaign began with a quiz in Assembly, led by Mrs Tansley and contested via mobile ‘phones using Kahoot, about how much girls and staff really knew about the EU.
Some of the most intelligent debating I heard, in a national campaign tarnished by spin and smears on both sides, was in the formal referendum debate on Monday 20 June when Daisy Lambert and Amy Goldup (Remain) pitched their case against Hannah Simmonite (Leave). A few days before, over a picnic in Shropshire with Year 7s, I overheard one pupil say, with impeccable logic, that under-18s should be allowed to vote in this referendum because the result would affect their future more than the older generation. (Whether, applying the same reasoning, the over-80s should be disenfranchised was, to the group, a moot point.)
The result in school (66% for Remain, 31% for Leave and 3% spoilt ballot papers) – while clearly out of step with the national verdict and with the vote in Northamptonshire – was in line with other GDST schools which, overwhelmingly, recorded anti-Brexit results. In this, as in the national picture, a clear generational divide emerged, adding yet another fracture line to the socio-economic and geographical chasms that have long been familiar contours in the British political landscape.
The school referendum highlighted one of the stark but salutary lessons of democracy – that having your say is not the same as having your way. It teaches us how to cope with losing. For some, the fact that searches in Google about the impact of Brexit surged after the outcome was announced, suggesting that the result rather than the campaign was what prompted many voters actively to seek the facts about the question, prompted some political pundits to mutter darkly about the ‘tyranny of majorities.’
This, however, is missing the other major lesson of democracy that the referendum teaches us. This is not that democracy is flawed (though we know it is). As Churchill said, ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ It is that democracy, to be effective, relies on an informed citizenry. The fact-lite hyperbole and mendacious mud-slinging which dominated the national debate made it difficult for any but the most assiduous and critically-minded voters to reach a well-informed judgement about the issue.
The story of Britain and Brexit 2016 reminds me, yet again, of the paramount importance of Citizenship education in school. That ‘c’ word – nestled in one of the least glamorous of educational acronyms, PSHCE – is so easily paid lip service to rather than fully embraced, so often tracked perfunctorily in the interests of compliance with guidance about promoting Fundamental British Values rather than genuinely embedded in a school’s culture.
As the girls reasoned thoughtfully about the ethics of the franchise, tapped their ‘phones excitedly in our quiz, discussed with their teachers the pros and cons of EU membership in class and walked down corridors deep in earnest debate, I felt proud to know that the education of our girls in the lessons of democracy is a cherished part of daily life at Northampton High. And this is why, regardless of the future direction of the UK, whether in the EU or outside, I am filled with hope for the future.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress
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