A Salute to the School Strikers

A Salute to the School Strikers – from an Extinction Rebellion activist and father.

You’ll have noticed that there’s never any shortage of grown-ups who are eager to tell you their opinions about whatever you happen to be doing. That’s especially true when tens of thousands of you—including my daughter, I’m proud to say—skip school to protest about the state your elders are leaving the planet in.

Quite a few “responsible” adults—as in “the ones who are responsible for the mess we’re in”—have made it clear they think the Climate Strike is really just an excuse to skip school. Well, duh! Obviously it’s much more fun and educational to be out in the streets changing the world than sitting in class being taught about it. You’ve written slogans and designed placards, organised with friends and debated with opponents, made appearances on TV and in social media, made new friends and bumped into old ones you had no idea were involved. Try fitting all that into a timetable and a lesson plan.

Theresa May had this to say about the School Strike: “…Disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for. That time is crucial for young people precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates that we need to help tackle this problem.”

Sorry, Theresa, but I’ll have to give you an F for that answer. This is a global ecological emergency! We need action NOW, not in 30 years’ time when a lucky few among today’s teenagers have managed to reach positions of power and influence. Anyway the vast majority of schools don’t give kids the kind of education they need to gain access to those positions. And the wise young people who were on the streets on Friday know full well that what’s needed today isn’t more technical solutions, but the political will to put the solutions we already have into practice, in a way that’s socially just and ecologically sustainable. No amount of studying is going to achieve that.

My educational journey

When it comes to the cost and value of formal education, I know what I’m talking about. I left school in 1988, the year the IPCC was founded; I studied science at university, graduating in 1992, the year of the Rio Earth Summit, went on to do a masters in ecology, then a PhD, studying the effects of climate change on rocky shore organisms.

In November 2002, the very same weekend I completed my fieldwork, the beautiful coast of northern Spain was devastated by the Prestige oil spill—the worst environmental disaster in Spain’s history—which covered the whole shore in a thick layer of toxic black fuel oil, poisoning the seaweed and shellfish I’d spent three years studying.

After all that, I still couldn’t get a job changing the world, so I had to do it on my own time, supporting myself as an writer, editor and translator while also building a house for my family—all skills that I learned mostly outside the formal education system.

Meanwhile, in those 30 years since I left school, the global economy has emitted more CO2 than it did during the whole of human history up to that point, and still shows no sign of slowing down, while ecosystems worldwide are on the point of collapse. If anyone had told me back then that we’d be in this predicament now, I think I would have done less studying and more protesting.

(But here we are.)

Unlike George Monbiot, I don’t feel inclined to apologise to your generation on behalf of my own for having fucked up the world. I’ve been doing what I can. Let everyone look to their own conscience.

But nor do I want to put the burden of the future entirely on your shoulders. Greta Thunberg has something to say about that: “It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh you children, you young people are the hope. You will save the world.’ I think it would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit.”

Hearing you loud and clear, Greta. On behalf of the adults of Extinction Rebellion (XR)—and I think I’m safe in speaking for the whole movement here—I want to say to the school strikers: we’ve got your back. We’re here to help. We don’t want to take control of the Climate Strike, profit from it, or use it as part of our nefarious plot to take over the world (well, ok, maybe just a little bit ;-). You’ve done a great job so far, and it has to continue to be driven and organised by you, the young people. But we want to offer you our whole-hearted support to help the Climate Strike grow bigger and better every Friday, and make the next mass action, on Friday March 15th, absolutely impossible to ignore.

In a very practical sense, XR has a lot of resources that you can draw on. (Of course, we’re also aware of the safeguarding and legal issues around adults working with children and other vulnerable groups.) We can offer training and support in a load of different areas: media and messaging, legal advice, how to plan and cary out NVDA (non-violent direct action), how to facilitate meetings and assemblies, prevent burnout, resolve conflicts, and make sure we are all having a good time, how to make effective and beautiful graphics, signs, puppets, music… Really, pretty much everything your movement needs to grow and flourish, except your own passion, wisdom and dedication—and you already have that in abundance.

What about Monday morning?

It’s great that you’re out on the streets protesting on Fridays. I hope you keep it up and diversify what you do during the protests. Marching, waving banners and shouting slogans gets a bit boring after a while. How about holding (Young) People’s Assemblies to talk about the ecological emergency and what we should be doing about it? Extend the conversation you’ve started with your brilliant signs and slogans.

But I think what matters just as much is what you’re going to be doing Monday to Thursday. Many of you are about to go back to school after the half-term break: going from schooling adults in how to change the world, to having to ask to use the bathroom.

Despite the excellent intentions and efforts of many teachers, the vast majority of schools are simply not fit for purpose. They just aren’t set up to empower and inform the young people who are going to create a restorative future for Planet Earth. Rather, for the most part, they foster a culture of domination, disempowerment, passivity, and hopelessness: in fact, the culture at the root of the ecological crisis. The system persists through our resignation and acceptance. Systemic change is needed, starting where each of us is best placed to act. For you, that’s likely to be in your school.

The climate crisis is a great rallying point, though our predicament is a whole lot bigger than just the climate. From oceans to insects, forests to cities, health to justice, no aspect of life on Earth is untouched. You can create a student-led assembly to demand your school declare an climate emergency, and discuss what to do about it: whether that means planting a school forest, tackling air pollution, eliminating plastics, stopping the use of pesticides, sourcing healthy local food for school lunches or growing your own… or reaching out into your local communities. But at the same time, you’ll likely find yourselves talking about, and coming up with solutions for, a lot of other problems—from bullying to child poverty to boring lessons—once you start to see how they are all connected.

Three words to remember: NEVER. ASK. PERMISSION.

I don’t mean you should be rude or arrogant in your behaviour. Be respectful at all times—especially to your opponents; but make it clear that you’re going to do what you believe is right, whether those in power grant permission or not. Most adults will be on your side, even if they might be afraid to say so openly.

Another world is possible. See you there!

For the Earth,

Robert Alcock
Extinction Rebellion Edinburgh
@AbrazoHouse (twitter)

Contact Extinction Rebellion:

Edinburgh: xr_edinburgh@gmail.com
Scotland: xr_scotland@gmail.com
Rest of UK: https://rebellion.earth/
International: https://xrebellion.org/

Comments (20)

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  1. Daryl Tayar says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Now is the time to think the unthinkable and do what is right, not what authority tells us we must do in order to prop up this business as usual economy that is driving us all to extinction.

  2. Simon cowan says:

    Just wanted to say, nicely written, well said that man

    1. Robert says:

      Thanks Simon!

  3. John Tracey says:

    Started well but then ………………..

    Sweeping generalisations about schools and their value and effectiveness. Perhaps the author did not experience what many other pupils have when at school but schools and local authorities throughout the country have worked at ‘saving the planet’ for many years. This includes work with WWF, Friends of the Earth, SNH – the list is long. Oh and there are the local organisations such as Highland Environmental Network, Action4Sustainability, HIghland One World to name a few in my part of the country.

    After the initial “Well done” comment came the “Here’s how to do it as we grown-ups have learned to do it.” Was it advice? Was it an advert for the author’s chosen organisation? Was it a control mechanism to ensure the young people don’t go too far?

    The author outlined gained academic qualifications. Gained without help from school education? I think not. Reality is school as a major part of a young person’s education has to satisfy many demands. Alas more and more I fear these are political demends ‘ be that national or local politicians or parents with their own agenda.
    Schools are to be praised and supported to develop as places of real learning where the purpose of education is education – pure and simple.

    “The conservationist’s most important task, if we are to save the Earth, is to educate.” Peter Scott, a founder of WWF.
    ” Take every penny you have set aside for aid for Tanzania and spend it in the UK, explaining to people the facts and causes of poverty.” Julius Nyere former President of Tanganyika/Tanzania

    1. Robert says:

      Hi John

      I’m not criticising the many adults within the education system who do amazing work for the kids under their charge. It’s the school system that is mostly failing—or perhaps I should say it’s succeeding in its hidden agenda, which is to promote passivity, conformity and competition. I totally agree that a good education is a wonderful thing. What a pity it’s so rarely on offer in our school system.

      “Schools are to be … supported to develop as places of real learning where the purpose of education is education – pure and simple.” Couldn’t agree more, and that’s exactly what I’m hoping this article encourages kids to do.

      I believe the role of adults is to do just what I’ve tried to do in this article: namely to give kids our support and advice, then stand back and let them get on with it. You might call that manipulation: I’d call it passing on your experience.

      I was down at the Parliament today where there were 75 or so school strikers (and roughly 6 adults, none of whom were doing anything but watching and taking photos). Their energy and dedication to the cause is palpable. Far from trying to control them, I hope and expect their movement will grow from strength to strength.

  4. Blair says:

    Change is happening before our eyes.

  5. Jo Smith says:

    What is your evidence that most schools “foster a culture of domination, disempowerment, passivity, and hopelessness”? I would have expected a scientist to cite evidence, rather than making vast generalisations with no examples/research to back them up. I started off enjoying this article but by the end of it I was frustrated that you presented opinion as fact.

    1. Tim Reid says:

      Well said, Jo – I look forward to a reply from the author. I’m a teacher and think the strikes are amazing – if pupils from my classes choose to go out on 15th March they’ll have my full support. But the adults involved will lose all my support unless they lay off teachers right now. This isn’t about schools at all, it just so happens that the kids are taking a bit of time out of school to do it – it’s unfortunate that a few school leaders have felt obliged to parrot some disapproving remarks about missing lessons, though I believe that’s just because they feel they ought to, not because they’re actually bothered (the PM’s response, on the other hand, was just insulting).

      Robert – I’m interested in knowing how much time you actually spend in schools other than as a parent (I am both teacher and parent, and since you were banging on about your experience I also happen to have worked in climate science for 12 years before changing career to education). Of course the system is flawed, but it is very well-meaning, especially when it comes to the environment, and the way you’ve said things above display such broad generalisations without evidence that they sadly provide ample fodder for the Jeremy Clarksons and Piers Morgans of the world to either rip you apart or ignore you.

      How ironic that you started your article with “You’ll have noticed that there’s never any shortage of grown-ups who are eager to tell you their opinions about whatever you happen to be doing”, and then go on to essentially give your savage opinions on a profession that you might never have worked in. As well as, you know, giving your opinion on what the kids are doing! As a climate scientist you should know better than most how frustrating it can be when other people express loud uninformed opinions about your profession and the motivations involved. Try moving from that to teaching, like I did!!!

      To sum up: The vast majority of teachers are with the kids and their parents on the protests, but focus on the planet and don’t make this an excuse for right-on parents who think they know better than everyone else to have a rant about schools.

      1. florian albert says:

        ‘The vast majority of teachers are with the kids and their parents on the protests’.
        How do you reach this conclusion ?
        In Edinburgh, there are about 18,000 pupils in state secondaries, with a couple of thousand more in private schools. 40 young people took part in the demonstration, which took place during the February holiday. If only those pupils who had a parent who is a teacher made taken part, there would have been many hundreds more there.

        1. Tim Reid says:

          Hi Florian. Why should teachers be held to a higher moral standard than all other parents?

          (The fact that it was half-term is irrelevant, and if anything gives the (relatively small number of) teacher-parents of kids of the protesters’ ages a solid excuse that it was their holiday too and they probably had pre-made plans before it was all announced.)

          1. simon cowan says:

            where did you get the idea it was half term? – just wondering – as i saw quite a number in uniform
            and i can’t imagine kids being in uniform if they didn’t have to

          2. It was half term for some schools

          3. florian albert says:

            Tim

            I brought up the level of involvement by teachers because you mentioned them as supporting pupil strikes. If you had said that nurses or bus drivers supported the strikes, I would have asked you the same question; what evidence is there that this is so ?
            In late October 2018, about 30,000 – The Scotsman’s figure – teachers demonstrated for a pay rise and better conditions. This showed clearly that there were a lot of teachers willing to take to the streets on that particular issue. I doubt that teachers are even remotely as supportive of pupil strikes.

        2. Tim Reid says:

          Hi Florian. It was half-term in Edinburgh, and in Fife where I live and work. Maybe some pupils were in uniform from private schools? Or they just chose to wear uniform in solidarity with the strikers in England? Who knows.

          I apologise for my original comment which was unscientific, based on maybe 20-odd teacher friends and colleagues that I’ve spoken to about it. No evidence of a ‘vast majority’. The point I should have made clearer is I do believe strongly (although I don’t have statistically significant evidence right now!) that most teachers would support and applaud kids going out of their classes for a worthy cause.

          What you’re doing, on the other hand, is singling out PARENTS who happen to be in one profession and implying they should be more supportive and willing to give up their holidays for a good cause than anyone else! Then bringing up the teacher pay strike is totally unfair and irrelevant, I’m not even going to comment on whether or not I supported that.

          If only 40 kids attended, then maybe the kids weren’t motivated or organised enough to get it together in the holidays – I hope there are a lot more out on 15th March, they’ll have my support and encouragement. The most important point that you’ve missed (as has Robert by taking it all as an excuse to get on his hobby horse against schools) is that the parents should have nothing to do with it – it needs to be driven and led by kids (like Greta Thunberg). So if pushy teacher-parents (or activist-parents) did what you seem to want them to do then it’s counter-productive and proves the tabloids right about their suspicions that adults are behind it all!

          I’ll say again – this is about the PLANET, not about schools. Don’t hijack it.

  6. Robert says:

    Hello Jo, Tim, Florian

    Thanks for your comments. In answer to your call for scientific evidence, Jo: well, yes, if I had been writing to convince adults of the need to radically transform the education system then I might well have cited more scientific evidence — bearing mind that as Antoine de Saint Exupery said “All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember it.”

    But actually I’m speaking mainly to the school strikers themselves. How much evidence do they need to validate their everyday experience? Are they happy with school? If so, then they will just think I am a bitter old guy with a grudge against schools because of my own bad experiences, and ignore it, and maybe I am.

    But I don’t think most kids say on Monday morning, “Great, I get to spend another five days intensively learning in a supportive and happy atmosphere!” I think they mostly drag themselves along unwillingly, enjoy what they can, suffer the rest, and rejoice when it’s over. More than presenting evidence to show that this is or isn’t the case, what I’m trying to do is to encourage kids to think, “Well, maybe it really doesn’t have to be like this, and changes could be made that would make my school experience better and less disempowering.”

    Oddly enough, Tim, not an hour after finishing the draft of this piece I was in a secondary school where I volunteer helping S2 kids with their writing, as part of a project called the Superpower Agency. As an adult accustomed to autonomy, who doesn’t normally frequent schools, it’s quite a shock to be back in the classroom and observe the petty, dehumanising rules about everything from what you can wear to whether you can go to the bathroom to where you have to sit, what you have to work on and with whom. And I say that with a great deal of respect for the adults (both teachers and volunteers) who are trying their best to work with the kids within this system.

    Over and above any actual content they might learn, the fundamental lessons of school are “sit down, shut up and do what you’re told,” and that hasn’t changed AT ALL since I went to school, though it may be expressed in more devious ways. I do think there are many more people, both within and outside the education system, who question the whole top-down model of education. Unfortunately this hasn’t necessarily resulted in changes at the level of ordinary schools. In England, at least, this is largely because of what former Chief Schools Adjudicator Sir Peter Newsam calls a move “towards a totalitarian education system” (see his paper with that title), where every significant decision is made by the Minister for Education through intense micro-management of schools. (I know Scotland has a different education system, but I remain to be convinced that its differences are fundamental rather than superficial.) The slow accumulation of people who have started to question this whole model of education, therefore, has led mainly to frustration, burnout, increasing control, and a trickle of refugees to either home education or a variety of alternative models to conventional schooling (everything from forest schools to democratic schools, you name it.) But parents and teachers mostly keep supporting this system either because they think it’s necessary or actually good for the kids to be obliged to spend their days in this kind of place, or because they don’t see any viable alternative.

    I actually think that what’s needed is a paradigm shift in education, a la Thomas Kuhn, from a top-down to bottom-up model. In fact I think a paradigm shift is needed in society as a whole, and since education is the way our society and culture propagates itself into the future, any real paradigm shift in society must necessarily include one in education. I also believe that the only people with enough of a vested interest in seeing this happen in education are actually the kids themselves. It’s up to them — I’m just pointing out that they DO have the power to change the world (starting with the education system), if they choose to do so, and offering them support in that mission.

    As you say, Tim, I’m just another of those adults who’s eager to give his opinions—the irony was very intentional!

    All the best,

    Robert

    PS. I have never been a climate scientist. I studied ecology, not the same thing; my PhD was on effects not causes of climate change; and since then I have done any number of things except actual scientific research. These days I am a full time activist and writer.

    1. florian albert says:

      Robert

      Sorry for the delay in responding. I am not optimistic about Scottish schools but I think you are over-pessimistic. What you refer to as ‘petty, dehumanizing rules’ are mostly needed to ensure the smooth fuctioning of schools, for the benefit of pupils more than anything else. Most pupils hate insecurity. Parents tend to judge schools by whether or not (what I would term) basic rules are in place. If not, they will send their kids to a different school. To be crude, to schools where pupils, DO. ASK. PERMISSION.
      The problem is that in Scotland, schools work well for those in private education and for those at the best state schools. For those at the bottom, the school system does not work well at all. The fact that you are involved in helping pupils – in their ninth year of formal schooling – in mastering a skill that should be done in primary -suggests that you have been working at the ( unsatisfactory) bottom.
      Your solution seems to be a ‘year zero’ approach; start again from scratch. This rarely works. My solution would be to accept that there is a huge problem and try and solve it by improving the schools at the bottom. (At a simple level, this might involve paying teachers more in Granton/Govan than in Balerno/Bearsden.)
      In theory, the Scottish government accepts there is such a problem. Unfortunately – in practice – it is paralysed.

      1. Robert says:

        Hi Florian

        FYI the school where I was working is about midway in the Edinburgh league tables. (Maybe you misunderstood—what I say helping kids with their writing I don’t mean basic support for writing skills but support with creative writing projects.)

        You’re right, there are enormous differences between schools in how well they are run and how well they perform. But IMO even the best ones are mostly still working with a flawed model of education. I’m calling for a change of paradigm from top-down to bottom-up (NOT the same as a “year zero” approach). You’re calling for the system to work better for those at the bottom. These two are not in any way incompatible. In fact I think the empowerment of young people would bring the greatest benefits for the schools at the bottom of the heap.

        1. Jim Bennett says:

          Hi Robert, although I found your article very irritating, I’m going to say something in your defence…
          I was in a meeting yesterday when a colleague received a text from her daughter’s school. It read : “xxx xxxx has contravened school policy today by attending whilst not wearing her blazer. She has received a demerit. ”
          Ivan Illich was right.

          1. Robert says:

            Always happy to be irritating in a good cause!

  7. SleepingDog says:

    During the Cold War, the threat of imminent nuclear destruction (never removed) may have been a source of anxiety for many children, which they had little chance of addressing head-on, although they could support disarmament movements. Possibly there were few nuclear-war-danger-deniers. Compared with today’s concern about the climate, pollution, species and habitat loss and general threats and damage to the environment, the sources of anxiety may be exacerbated by the fracturing of opinion on issues such as climate change and consumer society. Possibly children may find greater cause for anxiety here amongst their peers than their elders. Or from sources of information (or misinformation) largely invisible to mainstream society.

    If you follow the arguments of Sharon Beder et all in This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood,
    https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/this-little-kiddy-went-to-market_the-corporate-capture-of-childhood/
    it is not simply state indocrination at work in school and out, children are actively being conditioned as consumers and recruited as brand ambassadors (and their social media influencers are taking payments to push commercial products and ideologies, as a recent Panorama programme describes).
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n3ct4p07

    In some sense, children need useful habits to adopt that are environmentally sustainable and build towards collective decision-making and responsibility. To adopt critical thinking and spot fallacious arguments and what has been called ‘mind control in a democracy’. And the school strike can help. But if the rebels remain a minority, they will have to learn how to function as a minority within society (as per, say, the writings of Vera Brittain), and that puts green authoritarianism at odds with simple-majoritarianism democracy, and they need to be prepared for that.

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