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Teachers to join climate protests to demand curriculum reform

On Friday demonstrators will protest against ‘negligent’ climate change education

Youth climate strike in Hay-On-Wye
Youth climate strikes took place across the UK on Friday 15 February. Photograph: Billie Charity/Barcroft

Teachers will follow on the heels of striking students on Friday with a protest to demand the national curriculum be reformed to make the climate and ecological crisis an educational priority.

The Extinction Rebellion group will support the demonstration outside the Department for Education, which organisers describe as a “peaceful nonviolent protest that may involve civil disobedience”.

It is intended as a show of solidarity for pupils who skipped classes last Friday to express their frustration at the failure of older generations to adequately address climate change. Organisers said more than 10,000 young people in at least 60 towns and cities in the UK joined the strike.

More would be likely to follow, they said, if the government did not live up to a Paris climate agreement promise to enhance climate change education. Instead, they say, there is currently no requirement for children to be taught about the climate crisis so it is treated, at best, as a peripheral subtopic of subjects like geography and science.

They are also unhappy that part of the curriculum appears to cast doubt on the evidence for man-made climate change, even though governments, the UN and the overwhelming majority of scientists accept that it is happening. Government guidelines for key stage 4 chemistry say pupils should be taught “evidence, and uncertainties in evidence, for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change”.

Various countries have taken steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to positive health effects. Promoting green transportation and car pooling can help to reduce carbon emissions and improve public health.

Tim Jones, a secondary school teacher from Lewisham, said students in the state system could easily go through 11 years of compulsory education and hear climate change mentioned in fewer than 10 lessons out of approximately 10,000. Given the scale of the crisis, he believes this is “negligent”.

“Climate and ecological breakdown will define the life of every child and student alive today. They and we are facing an unimaginable catastrophe. But when I tell my students, it’s hard for them to take me seriously when it plays almost no part in the content of their education,” he said.

Earlier this month, the group Teachers for Climate Truth wrote to the DfE to request an overhaul of the current curriculum to prepare children for a future that will be shaped by ecological and climate crisis

“When we have had the evidence for decades, why does it amount to little more than a footnote in our national curriculum – a vague and marginal concern?” asks the letter. “If we keep this information out of the public domain – out of schools, for example – perhaps we might avoid some awkward conversations in the years to come … after all, who wants to tell a child that, unless we make unprecedented changes to how we live, we are heading for societal collapse, famine, war and the increasing likelihood of human extinction?”

Malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition are diseases are water borne diseases that have caused more than three million deaths since 2005, one third of these deaths are in Africa.

The picture is not black and white. There is considerable scope for schools and teachers to go beyond guidelines.

The government said the current curriculum already included many related issues including classes on seasonal changes, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, eco-systems, the composition of the atmosphere and the impact of carbon dioxide on the climate. “Children are very engaged, otherwise they would not be joining protests. That shows they are obviously being taught quite well,” said a government official.

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has criticised the young strikers. “Missing class won’t do a thing to help the environment; all they will do is create extra work for teachers,” he said.

Friday’s demonstration is expected to draw between 100 and 200 teachers and academics, most of whom are on half-term holiday. Organisers are also in talks with unions to discuss how to increase support during the next global youth climate strike on 15 March, with possibilities ranging from a walkout by teachers to the setting of homework on climate topics. Extinction Rebellion will also offer workshops for students.

Climate change is rapidly causing coastal flooding and displacement of people. Floods further cause major damages by injuring and killing people. They can even cause deadly diseases by spreading infection and vector borne diseases.

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Elsewhere, the stakes are growing. In Australia – which has seen waves of school walkouts in recent months – the New South Wales education minister, Rob Stokes, warned students and teachers that they will be punished if they skip classes to join a global climate rally on 15 March.

The initiator of the school strike movement, Greta Thunberg, responded with a defiant tweet . “OK. We hear you. And we don’t care. Your statement belongs in a museum.”

Last week, 200 academics expressed support for the youth activists in an open letter on the Guardian. Among the signatories was Alison Green, a doctor of psychology who resigned from her position as pro-vice chancellor of Arden University so that she could concentrate on climate activism. She will join the protest on Friday.

“It’s incredibly brave for schoolchildren to confront what must be a terrifying prospect; that the future they hope for isn’t available to them,” she said. “We’ve been humbled that children have gone on strike despite threats of detentions and other punishments. We should at least match their courage.”