Opportunities for young people, such as learning from native speakers of French, German and Spanish, could be put at risk if Britain leaves the European Union, Nicky Morgan has warned.
The education secretary has used her first major speech on the issue at London’s Fashion Retail Academy to highlight what she sees as the benefits to education in England of Britain’s continuing membership of the EU.
Ms Morgan’s intervention will be seen as significant as it is the latest contribution to the debate by a potential Conservative leadership candidate, and the first time anyone from the government has spoken at length about the impact a leave vote could have on the education sector.
It follows a failed attempt by some members of the National Union of Teachers to have the union campaign to leave the EU.
In her speech, Ms Morgan warned that being a member of the EU not only made the UK more prosperous but also offered young people opportunities, which leaving “would certainly put at risk”.
She said: “To take just one example, relevant to my own department, we currently have over 1,000 language assistants from the EU teaching in British schools.
“That means hundreds of thousands of pupils are having the opportunities to have their study of French, German and Spanish supported by native speakers.”
Although Ms Morgan did not go so far as to say that language assistants could be at risk of deportation as a result of a leave vote, her warning will no doubt compound schools’ existing concerns about new immigration rules for non-EU migrants, which could see thousands of teachers forced to leave the country.
From April 1, workers from non-EU countries will need to prove they earn at least £35,000 to settle in the UK for longer than six years.
Although maths, chemistry and physics teachers are exempt from the threshold because of a national shortage, fears have been voiced about the loss of teachers of other subjects, who would only hit £35,000 in the upper pay range outside London or at the top of the main pay range inside the capital, based on 2015 pay scales.
Vic Goddard, the Passmores Academy principal made famous by the reality television series Educating Essex, told Schools Week the rule change meant a choice between losing eight teachers in core subjects or raising their salaries above £35,000 in a time of decreasing budgets.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has said teachers from overseas were a “huge asset to the education of our children”, and warned the rule change would lose the country “experienced teachers it can ill-afford to lose”.
The National Union of Teachers this afternoon remains neutral on the issue of the EU referendum after a motion calling for its support for a leave vote was watered down by the union’s executive.
The original motion, tabled by members from North Somerset and Islington, raised concerns that the campaign to leave was being dominated by the right wing of politics, and sought to mount a “progressive, anti-racist, internationalist campaign against the EU”.
Fears were also expressed about the impact on teachers’ pay and conditions of the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the USA.
But the executive’s approved amendment to the motion commits the union to neutrality, adding that it would be: “inappropriate and potentially divisive to take a position on the European referendum”.