The thousands of children across the UK on ‘strike’ from school today to protest climate change are admirable. They’re part of a movement, Fridays for Future, which wants more aggressive measures to reduce emissions. It seems clear to me that climate change is real, man-made and requires action. If these kids can do their bit to make this point, good luck to them. Okay, some might just fancy bunking off from double maths or be dabbling in fashionable politics for its shareability on social media. Either way, what these children can’t expect is special treatment. There are calls from adults — almost exclusively those who agree with the aims of the walkout — for schools to show leniency to the strikers. Scottish Green MSP and occasional Churchill historian Ross Greer has written to headteachers north of the border saying the pupils are being ‘responsible citizens’ and ‘should know that they will not be punished for defending their own future’. He hopes ‘they will have the support of their teachers and education authorities’. Rupert Read, an academic backing the strikes, contends that ‘adults ought to humbly realise that it is no longer for us to tell our children what to do. We ought rather to take up the role of supporting them in their uprising, asking how we can help them in their struggle for survival’.
These arguments are more juvenile than the youngsters they seek to defend. While it may be true, as some bolshie babies joining the protest warn, that climate change will eventuate in ‘massive starvation, drought, fire tornados, floods, wars and death’, their proposed solutions — mostly fuzzy and ‘I want a pony’ in logical rigour — are open to dispute. For example, a petition calling for the Global Climate Strike For Future, proposes restrictions on drilling: ‘Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground.’ That is not an argument about climate change but about the policy response to it.
They are engaged in a political exercise and should not receive the ‘support’ of their teachers, who are there to educate, not agitate, and who should not take political sides in the classroom. Progressives’ desire to politicise everything was more bearable before they decided politics was a subset of morality. You can have an argument between left and right. Between saints and sinners, there is only grace or damnation.
Teaching unions have taken a more reasonable approach, sympathising with the children’s intentions while opposing the strike. Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, says:
‘It’s not appropriate for pupils to just walk out of school. The young people organising this are potentially putting themselves and others at risk by simply walking out of school. Teachers take their responsibility for pupils welfare during the school day seriously and while they may have sympathy for the cause will not be able to condone pupils just walking out.’
The Fridays for Future picketers may be sincere, they may be civic-minded, they may even be right. But they are children absent from school without permission. That’s not democracy, that’s truancy. Headteachers have some discretion in these matters but they ought not to turn a blind eye to even virtuous indiscipline. Implicit in an act of civil disobedience is an acceptance of the consequences, otherwise it is an indulgence rather than a sacrifice. Moreover, if environmentalist students are permitted to skip school to protest for their cause, the same opportunity must be afforded all students. That includes those who might want to rally in favour of market-driven solutions to climate change or in support of Brexit or against mass immigration.
Remember those Catholic schoolboys from Covington High who last month were slandered as racists across social media based on a clip that turned out to be a selective edit? When challenged on their assertions that the boys were racists for smirking at the Native American activists who had accosted them, progressives switched to denouncing the school for taking its students to an anti-abortion protest. But surely they were being responsible citizens too? Their struggle is for the survival of the unborn. Secular teachers may not agree but it is no longer for them to tell children what to do. Let politics through the school gates and you leave them open for all politics. If save-the-planeters get to truant for their cause, right-to-lifers and others must get it for theirs.
When these pint-sized protestors return to school on Monday, they should be commended for having the courage of their convictions — then promptly suspended.