Following the success of the school climate strikes, and the continuing climate emergency, there is likely to be more climate strike on the horizon. Below we offer some guidance.

Heads and principals should follow usual procedures and guidance.

The National Education Union (NEU) is proud to support the spirit of the climate action. At our own conference at Easter this year, we passed policy which outlines the huge threat we face from climate change and ecological breakdown; and mandates the union to ‘work with the school student’s movement, other unions and campaigns in informing and mobilising our members in support of actions up to and beyond the November COP26 in Glasgow 2021’.

Heads and principals will follow usual procedures and Government guidance in responding to any requests to authorise student absence, considering exceptional circumstances and ensuring liaison as necessary with parents/carers.

While the NEU cannot support or call climate strikes, we recognise that the young people we teach will face the biggest impact of climate change and that they have shown knowledge, courage and leadership in responding to the crisis.

We know the importance of listening to young people and we ask our members and reps to turn words into action. 

Here are some ideas that you can use to organise action in your school:

  • Get the whole school to take action for 30 minutes by demonstrating in the playground.
  • Drop the curriculum for the day or part of it and teach environmental and ecological issues.
  • Take an assembly on the climate emergency.
  • Encourage meetings of student eco-committees. 
  • Organise a live link with protests taking place in city centres.
  • Organise your own protest in the playground or at the school gates.  
  • Send a delegation to the climate change protests.
  • Hold inset days with focus on climate and an opportunity for staff to attend protests. 

What are my obligations with regard to ensuring student attendance?

You don’t have a statutory duty to ensure attendance. Pupil and student attendance is the responsibility of parents/carers rather than staff. Parents/carers are under a statutory duty under section 7 of the Education Act 1996 to ensure that their children of compulsory school age receive efficient full-time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude, and to any special needs they may have.

For maintained schools, academies, independent schools and local authorities In England, the DfE issued guidance in September 2020 on School Attendance. The guidance says that the government expects schools and local authorities to ‘promote good attendance and reduce absence, including persistent absence’. This is non-statutory guidance; it does not place a legal duty on school or college staff to ensure that pupils or students attend school or college.

In relation to schools in Wales, members are directed to the Guidance on School Attendance Codes which sets out how absences are to be recorded.

How can I show support for students when they are taking action on climate change?

Supportive steps can be taken, within the legal limits, through activity in the workplace or elsewhere over the lunch period or before or after work.  This could include taking part in public leafleting, holding meetings to discuss the issues with fellow employees, taking part in activities on social media, and supporting discussions or activities being undertaken by students and others.

You could also suggest that your school/college could reshape the normal timetable for this day in order to make time to discuss the issues and show support.

 You can find out about events in your area  and you can also find out more at the Fridays for Future website.

What if a pupil or student asks for permission to attend a climate change strike event?

Only authorised staff can permit absences. For schools in England, authority may be given in line with the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006 and in Wale under the Education (Pupil Registration) (Wales) Regulations 2010.

In most cases, the authorised person will be the headteacher or principal. And absences can only be granted lawfully where permission has been sought by the parent/carer of the child. For this reason, if a pupil or student asks a member of staff for permission to attend any climate change event during school or college time, permission should be refused. The child should be advised that authorisation can only be given to a parent/carer; staff cannot give permission direct to a pupil or student. They should be encouraged to participate in any activities being arranged on site.

If a pupil or student is absent without the head or principal’s permission, the absence should be recorded as unauthorised. Parents and carers should be informed of absences in line with usual procedures.

What if a parent/carer seeks permission for their child to be absent to participate in climate change action?

As we have stated above, only an authorised person may give such permission to a parent/carer. They will usually be the head or principal.

In England, the permission must be sought in advance. The authorised person may grant the absence if they ‘consider that leave of absence should be granted due to the exceptional circumstances relating to that application [Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006]. The accompanying DfE non-statutory guidance does not prescribe when permission should be given but advises broadly that:

‘Only exceptional circumstances warrant an authorised leave of absence. Schools should consider each application individually taking into account the specific facts and circumstances and relevant background context behind the request.’

In Wales, the Education (Pupil Registration) (Wales) Regulations 2010 state that, save in exceptional circumstances, a pupil must not be granted more than ten school days leave of absence in any school year.

In England or Wales, the head or principal should as always exercise their professional judgment in line with government, employer and school or college guidance. This will involve considering all the circumstances, including the age and maturity of the child and the steps that the parent/carer will take for appropriate communication, supervision and safeguarding. An alternative to granting requests for absence might be to offer some opportunity within the school day for discussion of the issues involved within the classroom or assemblies.

How should absences be recorded?

A record of attendance for each pupil or student must be made at the beginning of every morning session and again at some stage during the afternoon session. Pupil and student attendance registers should be completed as normal, in line with government, employer and school or college guidance.

If a pupil or student is absent without the head or principal’s permission, the absence should be recorded as unauthorised. Parents and carers should be informed of absences in line with usual procedures.

Can I respond to climate change concerns raised by pupils or students in the classroom?

Yes it is legitimate, indeed very important, to discuss the campaign around climate change and the movement and actions of young people to raise their concerns. Staff must respect a student’s concerns about the real and growing threat of climate change. Given that the whole scientific community, bar a very small minority of dissenters, are in agreement about this, it is a fact in the same way as other aspects of the curriculum.  See here for some climate-themed curriculum ideas and resources that you could incorporate into your teaching.

Teachers and educational professionals are also under a duty not to discriminate or harass pupils or students on grounds of protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Caselaw states that ‘a belief in man-made climate change ... is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief’; treating a colleague or pupil or student less favourably because of their belief could amount to discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. We are not in any way suggesting that climate change is anything other than a fact, however this legal duty needs to be borne in mind.

This does not of course require schools to give students permission to strike for climate change; including the issues in class discussions and assemblies and in other appropriate activities on site will enable schools and colleges to facilitate and moderate safe and appropriate discussions.

Further action and advice

If you are interested in how you can get involved collectively within the NEU to highlight the need to incorporate climate change awareness into curriculums and increase profile via campaigning to get governments to take more action on reducing carbon emissions, please speak to your NEU workplace rep and get in touch with your NEU local district.

Should you need further advice please contact your NEU workplace rep in the first instance. If there is no NEU rep in your workplace, or the peripatetic nature of your employment makes contact with a workplace rep difficult, contact the NEU AdviceLine