Until such time as politicians put the environment at the heart of policy, school climate strikes will continue to grow, writes Fiona Carnie. But schools, like their students, don’t have to wait to take action
How should schools respond to the climate crisis? It is crucial that this issue is confronted, yet teachers lag far behind their students, who walk out in their millions across the world to demand change each month, and are doing so again today.
In terms of the strikes themselves, many headteachers are already reviewing the advice they give to parents about school absence, with some actively supporting their students as a demonstration of citizenship in action. They have recognised that students will take time out to support the protests with or without permission and are asking parents to take responsibility for the safety of their children.
Even more important than the strikes though is the action taken within school communities to address the crisis. There are 30,000 schools across the UK: the potential is there to make a real difference if educational institutions large and small, primary and secondary, state and independent, rise to the challenge. They all need to review what young people are being taught about the climate crisis and environmental breakdown, as well as revisiting school policies.
One way forward is to set up a climate crisis committee which reports to the governing body. Such a group, which includes students, parents, teachers and school leaders, can help to leverage the support, skills and expertise that exist within the wider community.
Some schools have started on this path already by conducting an energy audit, reviewing how energy is used and where savings can be made. Others are reviewing key policy areas such as transport, catering, purchasing, waste and how school grounds are used. More and more schools are using the crisis as a spur to conduct a thorough-going curriculum review .
This issue is far too big for teachers to address on their own and provides an excellent opportunity to build links with the world beyond school; with local environmental organisations and businesses. Such a committee can agree the actions that need to be taken and explore ways of involving the different stakeholder groups.
The city of Bristol is taking a lead. The city council has declared a climate emergency and has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. A new education partnership there has seen all member schools embrace this agenda. Supported by local environmental bodies, students have designed impactful projects that they can do in their schools to help reach this challenging target. These students are looking at ways to involve the local community in their work. Staff and students are also being encouraged to make a personal pledge to change their behaviour to reduce consumption and energy use.
But there is no need for schools to reinvent the wheel. Help is out there. Eco Schools operates in 67 countries, offering a seven-step framework to support young people to bring about change. Bright Green Future is an environmental leadership programme for teenagers who want to create a more sustainable future. The Foundation for Environmental Education promotes five different programmes to empower people of all ages to take action for a sustainable world. The important thing is to get involved. A report released this month, signed by more than 11,000 scientists from across the globe, reveals the urgency and scale of the challenge.
Schools at the heart of their communities can take a lead and transform those communities, garnering the support of local people to work together to make a difference. Add-ons like one-off assemblies won’t cut it, reactive policy is insufficient, and school leaders who argue that their responsibility to raise standards leaves no room for this work risk their students coming to see school as increasingly irrelevant.
Instead, let’s harness the power of our 30,000 schools and make education a force for positive change.