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School student "youth climate strike" protest in central London, 15.2.2019. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

School students have common ground with teachers in finding this government their main enemy, whether it comes to the value of their learning or climate chaos, argues Dean McAndrew

The level of hypocrisy and cynicism shown by Theresa May in criticising school children for taking part in Friday’s youth strike for climate change is astounding, even by her lowly standards. According to her, they are wasting time which should be spent in lessons. She even has the cheek to lament about the impact this will have on teacher workload.

Let’s deal with workload first. This is already at unbearable levels. A staggering 81% of teachers have considered leaving the profession as a result. A recent DfE survey revealed that teachers work an average of 54.4 hours a week. The Government has recently launched a toolkit in order to reduce the hours spent marking, collecting data and planning lessons. While this came about as a response to campaigning and research from the NEU, the initiative amounts to a sticking plaster on an open wound. The implication is that teachers can alleviate their own workload with a few tweaks in the resources available to them, while the fundamental root cause – a high stakes accountability and testing system – is left untouched.

Put simply, if this government are suddenly so concerned about teacher workload, then they need only look in the mirror to find the cause. Yet when teachers take action over pay and workload, they are also demonised for disrupting education. The Tories certainly have form when it comes to playing groups off of one other. The overriding message from them is very simple: keep your head down and shut up.

Secondly, I don’t believe that children wanting to take to the streets to protest about climate change is a ‘waste of time’. Seeing children taking action over arguably the most important issue of the 21st century, and campaigning for a more sustainable future, cannot be anything other than a fantastic learning opportunity which empowers and informs. Any teacher can surely see what a fantastic teaching resource these experiences can be. I attended the protest in Newcastle. As well as being hugely inspired by how well young people could articulate this issue (not to mention the excellent creativity on display in the form of homemade placards) I was also encouraged to hear stories from people about some teachers and headteachers who have been supportive.

Many schools are very proactive on green issues, promoting awareness and action on a school-wide basis which, in many cases, allows children to take on leading roles. Every teacher understands the importance of social responsibility in education, but there is also a widely held believe that real responsibility lay with those in positions of far great power than themselves. What is so inspiring is that a large number of the next generation have now shown that they are all too aware of this. Friday’s protests were not purely about promoting individual lifestyle changes. They placed the blame squarely at the door of governments and big business, whose drive for profit treats the Earth and its inhabitants as collateral damage.

The government says they are pleased to see children taking on environmental issues, but that this is why they should stay in school where they can make a difference. But anyone who takes part in protest, especially at a young age, can vouch for how valuable an education it provides. I still remember the school walkouts over the Iraq War in 2003, and some of those children have remained active into adulthood.

I think this is ultimately about what we believe the purpose of education is. Is it to transform the status quo or to maintain it? Clearly which side of that fence you sit on depends on what you think of the status quo itself. Both the government and the thousands of children who took action have made it very clear where they stand.

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