Should school leaders let children miss school to take part in social action? Sarah Hannafin shares her advice…

There has been some press coverage this week regarding UK Youth Strike 4 Climate and young people across the country taking a coordinated day of action.

NAHT is  clear that a school leader’s job is to ensure children attend school, are kept safe and receive a good quality of education. While we support the right of young people to express themselves, first and foremost, pupils should be in school during term time.  We do not condone young people missing out on education as a consequence of supporting action. It will be for individual school leaders to decide how best to respond to any proposed protest by students in their school on Friday and to help, NAHT’s advice team has produced some guidance to support school leaders who may need to consider what steps to take and how to respond.

Once you get past the headlines, you see that education and social action aren’t mutually exclusive. Far from it. Data from the #iwill charity shows that currently 4 in 10 young people aged between 10 and 20 get involved in activities that make a positive difference. They also say that almost double this number would take part in things like campaigning, fundraising and volunteering if they had the chance.
Let’s not forget that some of these activities were recently suggested by Damian Hinds as part of his five foundations for building character, so there’s government backing for this kind of activity.

A school leader’s job is to ensure children attend school

Its right that schools should have a key part to play in providing those opportunities, supporting children and young people to engage with local, national and international issues and to a make a positive impact in their communities and beyond. Schools can encourage pupils to think about issues of social responsibility, to discuss, debate and develop their views, provide opportunities for their voices to be heard and encourage them to act to effect change.

Whether it is starting a petition to keep a local youth club open or campaigning for a new skate park; considering ways to support homeless people or expressing their views about the impact of Brexit; making a stand on climate change or challenging injustice, many young people are inspired to make a difference in their communities or in wider society.  In school, we can help them to consider what opportunities they have to influence such change safely, respectfully and responsibly.

Schools have always been places which encourage young people to think about helping others and show them what can be achieved by working together towards a common goal. The schools I have worked in were all fantastic in supporting charities or organisations with aims to improve the lives of others or campaigns for positive change. Students can be involved in planning and organising fundraising activities, communications and publicity about the cause, engaging with representatives from those organisations and taking part in activities such as beach cleans, litter picks or helping to sort donations of food and clothes.

Assemblies offer a great space for raising awareness and starting a conversation. If a particular group of students is passionate about an issue, let them lead an assembly, supported by a member of staff, to share their views and what they think could be done to change things. This could be followed up with a discussion in tutor groups and in the student voice forum – do most students agree or not? Learning how to accept and understand differing opinions is a vital skill for young people – not everyone will share your enthusiasm for a cause and nor can they be forced to.

Where there is consensus amongst the school population this issue may then become a whole school focus. But school leaders know to hang back here and encourage debate rather than imposing their own view. There may be opportunities for learning across the curriculum as well as space made for discussion in Citizenship or PSHE lessons. Students could work with staff to get support for appropriate activities across the school –fundraising, an awareness stand at lunch time, debates, information on the school website or letters to local councillors or MPs, as well as visits and guest speakers. Of course, it goes without saying that this is only possible in a fully funded education system, where schools have enough cash, staff and facilities.

Young people are passionate about the world they live in. We shouldn’t prohibit that passion or their appetite to effect positive change. What we should do is teach them to debate, influence and act safely and with regard for the rights and responsibilities of those around them. School leaders cannot support action taken out of school during term time – they are not allowed to. Ultimately, if young people want to fight for the causes they believe in, the best thing they can do is use the safe platform that their school can provide and make the most of their education, which will equip them to pursue their ambitions, now and in the future.