How Should Schools Address Climate Change?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 17 December 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

On November 29th school pupils in Northern Ireland were again striking to protest about lack of action from the adult generation to address the threat of climate change, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s initial protest in late August 2018, when she took up position outside Sweden's Parliament for the first time. She held a simple sign, black letters on a white board that said, "School Strike for Climate."

"It felt like I was the only one who cared about the climate and the ecological crisis," she told the BBC.  The 15-year-old was by herself, but not for long.

Support for her cause among school pupils has mushroomed, with strikes started around the world, and the message spread with the hashtag #FridaysForFuture.  By December 2018, more than 20,000 students around the world had joined her in countries including Australia, the UK, Belgium, the US and Japan. The strikes look set to continue and are challenging all of us to face up to this global emergency.

As well as praise and support for this action by students there is of course criticism. The Daily Telegraph reported in September 2019 that;

“... the Department for Education has echoed teachers’ unions in warning that whilst they "encourage constructive engagement" it shouldn't "come at the expense of our children’s education or excessive disruption". 

Teachers have been told that if they encourage students to attend or fail to record absences, they put themselves at risk of legal or disciplinary action”.

The paper reports that while Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn is openly in support, teaching unions have a different view;

“ .... teachers’ unions have taken a harder line as some teachers took to social media to discuss how to take their students to the protests without getting them into trouble for truancy.

Fearghal O'Nuallain, for example, a geography teacher from London, asked for suggestions on how to “frame” taking students to the climate strike, while keeping in line with the school's attendance policy. 

Graham Frost, a headteacher from Cumbria, told the Telegraph he is taking a group of 14 eight to eleven years to the Carlisle Global Climate Strike, where they will deliver speeches to the crowd about plastic pollution and deforestation.

But the NASUWT told teachers that they have “a duty of care to their pupils” adding: “Teachers cannot condone and encourage such behaviour and may be held responsible should they allow children and young people to do so.”

So how should schools address this new situation?  Traditionally in Northern Ireland schools have prioritised the development of social conscience and global awareness in pupils. This has been achieved in a range of ways through charity work and involvement in both local schemes and international aid projects.  Without question this approach has raised awareness in young people about humanitarian problems and environmental issues at home and around the world and provided opportunities for pupils to engage and contribute to real life need situations.  Should this dimension now be amplified to a higher level and become a more visible part of everyday school life?

One of my strongest memories of this type of work in my time in school was the response locally to the Tsunami disaster of December 26th, 2004 when over 200 000 lives were lost and communities around the Indian Ocean were devastated.  The young people were moved and energised by the scale of the human suffering caused by the natural disaster and led by their teachers, threw themselves into fund raising in a way I had not seen before.  Ultimately like many schools, the pupils raised enough to commission a new fishing boat for a Sri Lankan village.  One of the teachers involved, while on holiday several years later, actually visited the village to bring back pictures and accounts of the difference the fund raising had made which really resonated back in the classroom.

Watching Greta Thunberg now on television all these years later, I am again struck by the power and energy which school age young people can have and I am reminded of those moments when as schools we tapped into that potential and awakened their global consciousness.  In this time of stark reappraisal of our need to respond radically to the threats posed by climate change, how can schools “up their game” and do what they are best at by helping to reshape the environmental mindset and behaviours of our citizens of the future?

NAHT have flagged up a good example of an approach which school leaders can tap into.  Global Action Plan, one of the UK’s leading environmental charities are looking for schools to take part in their new programme where classes can take action on air pollution through involvement in a nationwide experiment to see how air purification technology can improve the air quality in the classroom.  Schools who participate would receive the air purification equipment and a workshop delivered by the Global Action Plan team, who will also leave the class with some fun STEM activities that will engage the students in the real-life experiment email here:   

ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton writing recently in Sec Ed, also acknowledges the importance of the issue and tries to strike a balanced, realistic approach in terms of advice to schools.  He points out that schools already have a lot on their plates, so dedicating time to climate change activities has to be balanced with other demands. He stresses however that it is important for pupils to understand the facts about climate change and how this issue will affect their future.

I agree with my former ASCL colleagues that school approaches and teaching about climate change are best linked into the curriculum and blended into existing discussion and classroom work, thereby both informing students and helping them to develop the critical thinking and organisational skills to properly grasp and respond to the concepts and issues involved.

This patient, detailed work is the strongest change strategy schools can have in terms of forming new environmental attitudes in the next generation, but there is a place too for the dramatic awareness raising activities to keep our focus on these uncomfortable new realities.


This article is correct at 17/12/2019

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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