We are in exceptional circumstances. Not enough is being done to prevent the climate change that will affect their future. The threat of a fine won’t stop us, we’ll fight it.
Parents worried about being penalised with fines for their children striking from school over climate change inaction today have vowed to defend their decision in court if they have to.
Thousands of children in more than 50 UK towns and cities were expected to down pens and join the first national Youth Strike For Climate today, defying warnings from some head teachers.
Schools are taking mixed views of the protest, with teachers saying on the one hand they understand the importance of the message on climate change and activism, but some are feeling restricted by safeguarding and absence rules imposed by the Department for Education. Children can only take ‘authorised absences’ for ‘exceptional circumstances’ which are not defined.
Parents often face fines from local education authorities for unauthorised absences. Some parents told The Ecologist they had received letters from their school head teachers warning the strike would not be authorised, and that children should be in school.
Sam Wiltshire said he had written to his daughter’s school in advance, notifying them of her desire to strike, but was not met with support from their school.
“It’s clear from letters that parents have received this week from head teachers that not all schools here in Bristol are showing support for the strike," he said.
"Regardless of that I will support my two children striking and having the courage to stand up for something that they can see is incredibly important.
"We are in exceptional circumstances. Not enough is being done to prevent the climate change that will affect their future. The threat of a fine won’t stop us, we’ll fight it.”
One 15-year-old Oxfordshire student, blogger and author, Alex White, tweeted: “I’ve been upfront with school and told them I will be walking out tomorrow lunch. I've been told the doors will be locked especially to stop students leaving. Therefore I have no choice but to have the whole day off.”
He said he knew there were school safeguarding concerns: “I’m sure some teachers are fully supportive, and I completely understand the position the school has to take, but I'm striking for my future.”
Other primary and secondary schools, including some in Oxford and Bristol, have promised to support the strike by giving authorised absence marks in the register to pupils going on the strike. Cathedral Choir School in Bristol is even taking whole classes along to the protest on College Green, with teachers.
Legal experts say that under the Human Rights Act 1998, children have a right to gather peacefully to protest, and that there cannot be a culture of ‘pay to protest’ - you should not have to pay for your human rights.
One human rights barrister told The Ecologist that parents had been in touch with concerns about being fined for the strike, and that the right to protest should not be restricted to those who can afford it.
“Our children as much as any of us have a human right to peaceful protest and assembly, and it is important that State institutions such as schools do not interfere with those rights,” she argued.
Parents had told her they were considering not paying any fine, and crowd funding to support a legal defence if necessary.
Layla Moran is the Oxford West and Abingdon MP, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman and also a former science teacher.
She urged school leaders to be supportive of any striking pupils: “I hope schools, colleges and universities see this in the positive light it is meant and equally hope those students act sensibly with making sure adults know where they are and making up the missed work.”
Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for south west England and Gibraltar, one of 200 scientists who signed a public letter of support for strikers.
She said: “Far from being disengaged, many young people do care passionately about our planet and the welfare of our neighbours across the world.
"They deserve our unreserved support and I hope that, rather than punishing students who take part, head teachers encourage them to share their experiences of active citizenship with their peers.”
The National Association of Head Teachers said school leaders should ensure children attend school, are kept safe and receive a good quality of education, but added: “Individual school leaders can decide how best to respond to any proposed protest by students in their school on Friday.”
School strikes have been inspired by 16-year-old Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg’s protests outside her Parliament buildings last year, with copycat actions taking place in Australia, Holland and Belgium. More protests are planned, including a global strike day on March 15.
The striking children have a list of demands on the government, including: a UK-wide declaration of a climate emergency; more active steps to achieve climate justice; a reform of the national curriculum to make the ecological crisis an educational priority; mass public communication about the climate and ecological crisis; the inclusions of youth views into policy making; a lowering of the voting age to 16.
Jake Woodier, a UK Youth Climate Coalition strike co-organiser, said interest in today’s strike has grown rapidly over the past fortnight: “It's fantastic to see so many passionate young people standing up for their futures.
"The evidence is clear that urgent action is needed now, to decarbonise all parts of the economy, and young people around the world are aware of this. Today's young people have been let down by those in power for the previous few decades.
“I think that fears surrounding potential fines are natural for a lot of students in what may be their first taste of climate action. Schools and the education system should be about learning and empowering students to make positive change in the world, so it would be a massive shame if schools were to threaten punishment for those wanting to fight for their future.
“Schools have a policy of only allowing absences for medical reasons or under exceptional circumstances. Young people the world over see the climate crisis as an exceptional circumstance.”
Jake said many teachers had personally pledged support for the strike: “Teachers may be in a bit of a tricky situation to promote it too actively, but we're living in a world where the climate crisis is an urgent reality.”
Alex Morss is an independent ecologist, freelance journalist, educator and author.