On 20th September students across the world will return to the streets to continue to protest climate change. This time, they have called upon adults to join them for what they hope will be the world’s biggest climate mobilisation.
Since the UK strikes begun last autumn, there has been much discussion of the appropriate response from educators. Many have expressed whole-hearted enthusiasm for the students’ protests, because as a generation we have overwhelmingly failed to prevent the climate catastrophe and so many of us, like myself, are delighted to see young people leading the way. Hopefully they will succeed where we have not.
Others have been less enthusiastic. Conservative politicians such as Theresa May and Damian Hinds have repeatedly told the students they should get back to class. Some schools have even handed out detentions for those bold enough to walk out for the strikes.
In response, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo, wrote to 25,000 headteachers this week, urging them not to prevent or punish students for taking part in the upcoming actions. Naidoo’s letter gets straight to the heart of the matter, arguing “the climate emergency is the defining human rights issue for this generation” and reminding teachers that “children are exercising their human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and to have a say in decisions and matters that affect their lives.”
While I would not usually want children to be absent from school, the scale of the climate emergency, and the grave consequences of doing nothing, demand action. This is a fundamental question of young people fighting for the right to a safe future. What could be more important?
With this in mind, how can those working in education support the youth strikes? While many may be unsure how best to respond, there are teachers across the country making firm plans for action.
Some schools are organising activism within the school day, for example “curriculum strikes”, where usual lessons will be cancelled for the day in favour of those focusing on topics such as air pollution, the history of environmental activism and climate justice. Other ideas include holding a school-wide, citizens’ assembly with a view to declaring a climate emergency – which could then be developed in the months to come. Another idea, perhaps particularly appropriate for younger pupils, is to have a non-uniform day where all pupils wear green. This could be accompanied with something simple like an extra 30 minutes outdoor play in celebration of our relationship with nature.
Perhaps the most effective way teachers can support the strikes is by organising a trip either to join the nearest demo, or to a civic institution such as the local town hall where children can participate directly in a mini protest. In some cases, a delegation of teachers and pupils are being sent to represent the school at large.
Some of the more radical teachers I spoke to, particularly from schools where large numbers of the pupils were planning to attend the demos independently, were planning on calling in sick with “a cough from air pollution” or “climate flu” in order to attend the protests in person. Since the case of climate emergency is too broad for formal strike action (which would require union endorsement), this is hopefully a way of circumventing anti-strikes laws. Others are planning on protesting outside the school gates with placards before and after the school day, or during their lunch break.
There are countless ways for teachers to both acknowledge and respond to the youth strikers call for support. Which one will work best will depend on the school and the pupils, but I would encourage educators to follow their students’ lead and be bold. If headteachers are reluctant to agree to non-uniform days or changes to the timetable, it’s worth showing them Kumi Naidoo’s letter or working together with other staff to persuade them.
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The movement, created by these young people, is a beautiful one. They are coming together to demand adults help them to build a better world and a better future. On the 20th of September, and in the months to come, they both need and deserve our full support.
If you’re interested in learning more about environmental education and how to show solidarity with the students strikes, including how to declare a climate emergency, a coalition of environmental education groups including XR Educators, the National Education Union and Winchester University are holding a ‘Climate Emergency: Education for the Future’ conference in London on the 12 October