Whether we’re pro or anti Brexit, or somewhere in between, most of us agree that Brexit will have a profound impact on our lives. That impact will be greatest – and last longest – for young people.
Over the summer, the Citizenship Foundation contributed to a research project by the London School of Economics to better understand views of young people about Brexit – through a series of focus groups the length and breadth of the UK. The report was recently published. Two of its findings made stark reading. Firstly, they are angry that their views have been ignored –during the referendum itself, and in the subsequent discussions about the negotiation priorities. Secondly, they want more political education – to help them make sense of the issues, and to contribute to the debate.
The Citizenship Foundation decided to respond by organising our first ever Brexit Conference for Young People. It took place on Tuesday the 28th of November. The aim was to help young people develop the knowledge about Brexit, the skills of critical thinking and advocacy, and the confidence to speak up and make a difference.
We brought together 90 young people aged 14-17, from a range of secondary schools, along with their teachers. We also brought in around 15 legal and financial experts, from our partners FTI Consulting and the law firm CMS, who volunteered their time to work with the students. After a keynote address looking at this history and development of the European Union (and especially Britain’s relationship with it), the students worked in small groups with the volunteers. They considered how Brexit might impact different aspects of the UK. Case studies covering fisheries, the NHS, higher education and car manufacturing were considered.
The students engaged with factual information on each issue and then discussed different perspectives including the arguments of those in favour of both leaving and staying. They examined specific case studies in order to grasp a wider understanding of the possible implications of Brexit. So, the car manufacturing case study allowed students to look at the impact of trade deals and not being/being part of the Single Market. The NHS case study enabled them to examine the implications of Brexit on the public sector and the effects of no longer having the Freedom of Movement of people. Finally, they discussed between them their own views on each issue. The conference ended with debates, with students arguing pro and anti-Brexit positions (regardless of their own views).
I sat in and watched the conference, and a number of things struck me.
Firstly, the students engaged with issues that you might think it would be hard to engage them on. It was fantastic to see a group of teenagers discussing the implications of Brexit for agriculture – even though none of them had direct experience of agriculture.
Secondly, when presented with different viewpoints, they were able to see the different perspectives, and indeed, change their minds.
Thirdly, they cared with passion about Brexit. The common myth about young people is that they don’t care about politics. Actually, I think the current generation care more than any previous generations for a long time. They are incredibly globally aware, and they have strong views. The difficulty is that they have few means to be able to engage with the political structures as they currently are.
We’re hoping that our conference has played a part in helping young people to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to make their voices heard. The students themselves were certainly enthusiastic about it. In the words of one of them,
“It was an amazing day and really broadened our understanding of Brexit. It’s made me want to get in touch with my local MP and find out more.”
We’re planning to hold a series of these Brexit Conferences for Young People around the country, starting in Leeds. If your school is interested in taking part, you can register your interest here. https://smartlaw.org.uk/brexit-conference/