When students demand what to be taught, let’s listen

Students. Anti-establishment. Rebellious, or looking for an excuse to be. Demanding. Campaigning. And learning courtesy of state funding.

That was the perception of many when I was at university (which was a while ago). One of my flatmates once even sneered at a charity spokesperson on the television saying she was probably a Guardian-reading recent graduate. What did he think he was going to become upon, er, graduating?

The bit about learning courtesy of state funding is no longer true. And these protesting students, they’re getting younger. They are still at school, many of them.

There is a whole movement of them, up in arms, demanding to be taught. In case that sounds like an oxymoron, they are demanding to be taught what they believe is relevant to their future.

This is not a reference to the Friday school-skipping movement begun by Greta Thunberg (although there is no doubt that you will find them on SchoolStrike4Climate marches).

This lot have gathered behind that protest to demand in a very coherent way that the whole curriculum should be rewritten, to teach them what they need to know to change society when they grow up and find their way into the workplace.

They are called Teach the Future.

How many times down the years have we heard “I don’t understand why I learnt that at school, it does me no good now” or, from children, “what’s the point of me learning this? It’s not going to help me in the future”?

Maybe it will. Trigonometry will aid you as surveyors, town planners, It all depends what career you choose.

Teach the Future is a very organised campaign. It’s not just a couple of soundbites. It demands that the very fabric of the system is rewritten, so that, for example, in language learning they can be taught how to use climate change language when conversing with those outside the UK.

They have thought through their campaign to the extent that they want the Government not only to review the curriculum, but to address matters in their teacher training. They have commissioned surveys – always a winner to provide data and statistics – which show that 4% of students think they know a lot about climate change, 68% want to know more and that 75% of teachers feel they have not received adequate training on the matter.

They only launched last October, since when they have addressed political parties on the matter, gained the support of 50 organisations, launched petitions and letter writing campaigns and even drafted how they would frame a Bill for Parliament, plus held a Parliamentary reception in the House of Commons, to address MPs. This is no mean feat, because it costs quite a lot of money, which they have achieved through crowdfunding.

They have even costed out how much it would take to retro fit existing educational school buildings to have net zero emissions by January 2030 and demand that all new buildings from January 2022 should be designed as net zero emissions.

It will cost £23.37 billion. 

The principles (if not the principals) behind that demand are unmistakable: just imagine if all primary and secondary schools were powered by solar panels. 

The primary curriculum includes many elements of environmental education, alongside external drives to cycle to school, for which an enthusiastic teacher has to be found to organise the co-ordinate the whole thing.

But if every pupil went home wondering why their school had solar panels and questioned their parents as to why they didn’t have them at home, wouldn’t that force many more people to think strongly about a more sustainable future? 

It would also reinforce the messages about Bike It to School, or Park and Stride (if pupils live a fair distance from their school). The schools, if they generated excess energy in the summer holidays for instance, could either sell the energy back to the grid under the new Smart Export Guarantee (the new version of a Feed-in-Tariff) or become a community resource, selling to local residents. 

When our youngest citizens are asking an older generation to give them something, it isn’t always easy to say yes. They can be demanding. They can rant. They can rave. They can be unreasonable. Or they can be demanding, logical, thoughtful, constructive and think things through and make fascinating proposals that challenge our way of life.

And as these business leaders of the future demand change that will benefit not just them (for far longer than us) but us all – by protecting the environment in which we hope to live out our dotage – it would be foolish not to heed what they have to say and take appropriate action, in business and in political circles.