Forty years ago, I occasionally succeeded in skipping school for climate-related reasons – namely because my village was under deep snow and the school bus couldn’t get through. But too often the snowploughs proved surprisingly effective. It never occurred to me, though, to skip school on a point of principle. That is, however, what pupils are threatening to do – or are being implored to do – on Friday. A “Youth for Climate” movement circulating on Twitter has declared a ‘strike’ for the day – the idea being that children will walk out of lessons in order to protest at the lack of progress on tackling climate change. It seems to have an international edge, being inspired by pig-tailed 16-year-old Greta Thunberg – the Sound of Music extra who made a speech at Davos last month.
But then it also seems to have a remarkable number of adult activists behind it, not least from Extinction Rebellion, which has been tweeting its support over the past few days, between sharing articles demanding that oil company bosses be tried for “crimes against humanity”. Disgracefully, the National Association of Head Teachers initially said the strike should be applauded, adding “A day of activity like this could be an important and valuable life experience.” – although the union later changed its mind and suggested that children should go to school instead.
I know what I would do if I were a headteacher: schedule a science test for Friday, which obliges pupils to sift through the evidence in a balanced way and requires them to consider the economic consequences of efforts to cut carbon emissions, so that they understand the complexity of the issues. If pupils want to snub it in order to go chanting on the streets, fine, but if they do it should be made clear to them that they should not expect to be offered a place in the sixth form, because they will have failed to demonstrate an aptitude for education.
I am no great fan of strikes, but I thought the idea of them was to create a problem for management, with the aim of persuading it to back down over unpopular changes to working practices, or whatever. What is the point of a strike where the ‘management’ in this case – head teachers – can’t do anything to satisfy your demands? Or maybe there is a little something they can do. The protest does also appear to present an opportunity for reducing congestion outside the school gates. Heads should say, yes, we’ve got the message, so we are going to do our bit for cutting carbon emissions by introducing a ban on pupils being dropped off by car within a mile of the school gates – they can walk or cycle instead. I am sure that local councils with their eager traffic wardens will be only too happy to co-operate. If pupils are so concerned about climate change then they will, of course, embrace such a ban. It won’t just help schools do their bit for cutting climate change, it will satisfy a lot of local residents, too.