A renowned education expert says student-led climate change strikes should be something to celebrate – not deny.
On Friday, thousands of primary and secondary students around Australia staged a third major strike calling for tougher government action on climate change.
The students stormed political offices across Australia, including those belonging to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and federal Labor MP, Anthony Albanese.
Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, said Australia’s youth protest movement calling for rapid action on climate change should be seen as a positive thing by leaders.
“For years now here in Australia and around the world we have insisted that young people need to learn the ‘21st century skills’ that include critical thinking, complex problem solving, effective communication, active citizenship, and other desired features,” Sahlberg told The Educator.
“Now they show us what they look like in practice. I think we should cheer and celebrate that, not to deny and ban it.”
However, NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, said that while students have a right to engage in protests but should do so outside school hours.
“I welcome students expressing their views on important issues – discussion and debate is a good thing for our democracy,” Minister Mitchell told The Educator.
“However, if they want to engage in rallies and community events, they should be doing it over the weekend, after school or in school holidays, not during the school day.”
Minister Mitchell said Australian school students need to be at school on school days.
“The best way to become an informed citizen is to get an education. Any student not in class will be marked as ‘absent’, and unexplained absences are subject to the school’s disciplinary code,” she said.
A spokesman for the Victorian Education Department said parents and carers should notify their school as soon as possible on the day of a student’s absence, and wherever possible in advance of upcoming absences.
“Every day at school is important. It is well known that time out of the classroom means that students can fall behind," the spokesman said.
“Schools play an important role in helping students to engage with the broader community and issues they feel strongly about.”
The issue of climate change has been the subject of intense debate and protest, however, reports in recent years have created a greater sense of urgency for governments to act.
Last year, the world’s leading climate scientists warned there is only 12 years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which the rise of even half a degree in temperature will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Last week, the UK became the first country to declare a “climate emergency” after the House of Commons approved the motion by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“We are living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now,” Corbyn told parliament on Wednesday.
The move follows weeks of climate change protests across the UK, which have put pressure on the government to take a tougher stance on the issue.
As Australians prepare for the May 18 federal election, both major parties are ramping up efforts to convince voters that their respective energy and environmental policies will be the most beneficial for the future of the nation’s environment.
Sahlberg said many Australian schools are already teaching children about the civil rights, freedom of speech, democracy, how to influence decision-making and debate eloquently about important issues like climate change.
“If schools are not able or willing to accommodate these issues more in what they do and teach kids how they should use their rights in good way, we will see many more walk-outs, strikes, and even riots in and out of schools. That is what we need the least,” he said.
“Schools should be a place where children can experience and learn democracy, not just a place where we adults teach them about it.”