On Friday thousands of students across the UK left their lessons to take part in demonstrations demanding action to tackle climate change.
I currently teach part time in Oxfordshire and the protest in Oxford had one of the highest turnouts, with the media reporting an estimated 2,000 young people rallying to the protest in the city centre. I’m not in school on Fridays, it’s one of the days I work in the education team at the Bodleian Libraries, so I went along in my lunch break to see how the demonstration was going.
In common, I suspect, with many teachers, I felt some internal conflict over this student strike for climate. On the one hand I find it extremely encouraging, indeed inspiring, that young people should be taking a leading role in this crucial issue; on the other there are, of course, difficulties in condoning time out of school and missed lessons, especially in the run-up to GCSE and A Level exams. How many students would be genuinely concerned and actively engaged in tackling climate change and how many just taking an easy opportunity to bunk off on a Friday afternoon?
The headteacher of my school made a very reasoned response when approached by students about the strike; not authorising their absence but celebrating their desire to speak out and prompting them to think beyond attendance at an event arranged for them, to organising practical action in their own time. He commented on the strike in the newsletter Take Me Home and also included the Students’ eloquent letter to their local MP.
I was very impressed by the demonstration itself. Before reaching the venue in Oxford’s Bonn Square I encountered a march along Cornmarket (pictured above), with banners flying and some well-coordinated chants. This got the message across in a forceful but good-humoured way and was certainly getting a lot of interest from the public.
The main protest in Bonn Square was still in full voice, with impassioned speeches, music, chanted slogans and banners. It was the latter that really impressed me. Although there were a few of the inevitable printed placards from Socialist Worker (say what you like about Trotskyists, they know how to run a printing press), most banners were individual and imaginative hand-made, labours of love. My particular favourites were “Think or Swim” accompanied by a picture of Westminster flooded by rising sea levels, “The Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We?” and, with a nod to the Green Party, “We’ll listen to UCAS when you listen to LUCAS”. I do hope the creators find a way to work their banners into their art portfolios.
The vast majority of people were actively engaged. Yes, there were a few kids in town who were out of school but didn’t seem to be connecting with events in any way, but nothing like the numbers of opportunists some commentators had predicted.
In education we tend to be judged on outcomes. I can’t think of a better outcome from schools’ work on citizenship and Fundamental British Values (not to mention the science input on the greenhouse effect and climate change) than that students stand up for what they believe in and attempt to effect change by engaging in the democratic processes of a free society, including petitioning elected representatives and making peaceful public protest. The alternative is for the youth of our nation to be disengaged and at best apathetic, at worst disillusioned and disconnected from the rest of society.
Friday’s protest made a point. Maybe the protest could have been at the weekend, but I think we all know that would have gained less coverage and prompted less debate. Let’s hope we can all now move from protest to effective action because our young people are right: whatever our age, the climate clock is ticking and there is no planet b.