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Schools: Climate Change Strike

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they are giving to schools whose students plan to take part in the pupils’ strike on climate change on 15 February.

My Lords, we understand the importance of the issue but missing school is not the solution. Absence causes disruption for other pupils and for teachers, as schools seek to ensure that absent pupils catch up with the work that has been missed. Ultimately, if a pupil is absent from school, it is for schools to decide whether to authorise the absence. Advice on recording absence is included in the school attendance guidance.

My Lords, is it not the case that today’s pupils and students will be the ones who, over the next 60 or 80 years or more, will suffer the most from the disastrous consequences of climate change unless those of us who are of a rather more advanced age today deal with the matter quickly? Will the Minister give a clear guarantee that the students who decide to take part in the action on Friday on the basis of a personal decision conscientiously made will not be punished or suffer any retribution as a result?

My Lords, as I said in my Answer, it will be for the head teachers of the schools affected to consider whether the absences are authorised. On the other part of the noble Lord’s question, our efforts on climate change are a tremendous success story. According to PwC, we are the fastest G20 country to decarbonise since 2000 and, according to a Drax report, we have been independently assessed as leading the world in decarbonising electricity since 2008 and as being one of the fastest countries to phase out coal-powered generation. All those things will benefit the next generation.

My Lords, could the Government be more creative in their thinking and interpret the strike as an encouraging example of young people’s active citizenship and civic engagement, the implications of which could usefully be explored in citizenship education classes?

My Lords, I do not accept that taking time off school in the middle of term is useful for children. All the evidence suggests that time off school affects their education. We have made tremendous progress in attendance levels over the last 10 years, and in any way validating this sort of behaviour does not help children.

My Lords, further to my noble friend’s Answer, can he explain why it is right for children to go on strike during term time at a cost to the taxpayer and to their own education? Why can they not leave these protests until the holidays?

My noble friend asks a very valid question, and it is one that I have asked. Children have 15 weeks of holidays and half-terms in which to demonstrate without incurring disruption and extra workloads for their teachers. An average primary school lesson costs £1,600 and a secondary school lesson about £1,900, so school is where they should be.

My Lords, why do we not encourage children to strike every Friday—about terrorism next week, about overfishing of the oceans the week after and about social media the week after that? It would make the Government very popular if we gave children an extra day off school every week.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is taking this Question entirely seriously. The question from my noble friend concerning active citizenship is not to be brushed lightly aside. Young people have few enough opportunities to demonstrate that they have understood the issues of the day for them and their generation. This might be one of them, and perhaps the Minister would like to look at it again in that light.

I understand the noble Baroness’s passion for the subject. We are all concerned about the climate. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, we are ahead of the world in many of the things that we are doing on climate change. Indeed, the Guardian reports that last year the UK was the only country in the EU to reduce its electricity consumption, whereas all the other countries increased it. We are doing an enormous amount. If these children stayed in class, they could learn about some of the things that we are doing. We have science and geography curriculums, and we have citizenship education. Those are all opportunities to learn about these important matters.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that citizenship education in this country is unfortunately in a very parlous state at the moment? In many schools, it is simply not being done; in others, it is being done very badly. I will follow up on the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Without supporting strike action, perhaps we could encourage the headmasters of the schools where children go on strike to engage more fully in citizenship education, so that their pupils will know how to make a difference.

To give the noble and right reverend Lord some reassurance, I say that we have recently issued new guidance for Ofsted inspections and all these points are being moved up the profile for children. Today’s first Question—it showed the House working at its best, with cross-party debate—was about the use of plastic, which is something children can be much more active in. How many young people do noble Lords see on the Tube drinking bottles of water which are then thrown away? Young people can actively participate in that, much more than on long-term climate change, which we are already dealing with.

My Lords, first, can we applaud the fact that young people really care about this issue? We quite often moan that they do not bother about anything. Secondly, I remind the Minister that his former Secretary of State, Mr Gove, tried to remove climate change from the curriculum. It was thanks to Ed Davey in the environment department that we won that battle. Finally, given that this is such an important issue, why do we not have a national climate change day, when schools and communities could discuss this important topic?

My Lords, it is up to schools to find the specific parts of their curriculum. We announced £10 million of investment to support schools to share best practice on behaviour management, and indeed on matters of this kind.