Should young people be protesting about climate change?

PUBLISHED: 11:03 06 May 2019

Elsie, Annie and Betsy Neil with their signs at a climate change protest in Ipswich. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Elsie, Annie and Betsy Neil with their signs at a climate change protest in Ipswich. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN


In her latest column, CLARE FLINTOFF - chief executive of ASSET Education, a group of 10 Suffolk primary schools - asks whether children should be allowed to protest against climate change, or if they should be punished for taking time off school.

Clare Flintoff, chief executive of ASSET Education.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNClare Flintoff, chief executive of ASSET Education. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Who would have thought that the strongly held views of a 16-year-old girl from Sweden would have made global headlines and inspired millions of people to join the protest about climate change?

Greta Thunberg first heard about climate change at the age of eight. She became so concerned that at the age of 11 she became depressed and chose to stop talking.

Diagnosed with selective mutism and autistic spectrum disorder, she began protesting outside the Swedish government, the Riksdag, every Friday, skipping school to hold her banner “school strike for the climate”.

To her, with her “black and white” perspective on life the fact that politicians had known about global warming for decades and seemingly done very little about it was incomprehensible. She has provided a wake-up call to us all.

Climate change protesters on the Cornhill  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNClimate change protesters on the Cornhill Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

What is fascinating is the reaction that others have had.

Toby Young, British journalist and formerly director of the New Schools Network, wanted her “called out”, describing her as a “weirdo”.

She has been the subject of insensitive and frankly disgusting and discriminatory attacks on social media.

But she has inspired a generation of young people to feel that they can have a voice and to take action in a series of school strikes which have again caused mixed reactions in the world of education.

Even our own Suffolk-based Geoff Barton, now general secretary for the school leaders union ASCL, told school leaders that they could not condone the strikes on the grounds of pupil safety - no matter what the cause - and should give pupils detentions for skipping school.

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Writing in the Guardian, David Reed criticised Geoff for “missing the point of efforts over the past decade to raise education standards - for what does education look like if it's not pupils being engaged enough on issues such as climate change to do something about them?”

So, the question is do we want our young people to feel that they have a voice - to feel empowered, to feel that they, together with others can change the world for the better?

Is that not the point of education? Or are we educating our young people to prefer the status quo and to defer to older generations who know best - surely not when as the older generation we have got this so utterly wrong.

Even the UN general secretary Antonio Guterres has admitted that his generation has failed to respond adequately to climate change and, supporting the strikes, he recognises that young people are understandably angry.

We should not fear that when we teach young people about the world we inhabit they will have an opinion. What we teach must be relevant to the real world.

Learning should be real, authentic and purposeful. It should engage and motivate. There is immense value in children feeling so strongly that they want to make a difference to the world they live in.

In Greta's words at the EU council in Brusssels in 2019: “If you say that we are wasting valuable lesson time, then let me remind you that our political leaders have wasted decades through denial and inaction.”

You sometimes hear adults say that young people are selfish and don't take responsibility but when they do they are vilified.

Our young people today are actually showing a lot more moral courage than many in older generations.

In schools we should be educating our young people about the world they will inherit and we should be giving them the confidence and skills to debate, to consider other people's views, and to feel that action is worthwhile.

We shouldn't see protest as dangerous when the stakes are so high. This is not a case of understanding different perspectives and taking sides - there is only one side to this.

Young people are calling us out and are driven to react by protesting because, literally, their future depends on it.

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