Climate change strikes: Ideas for how schools can respond

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Taking a stand: The recent youth-led protests over the climate change crisis have swept the planet (image: Adobe Stock)

The strikes in protest at the climate change crisis have made international headlines. Geoff Barton looks at how schools might work with pupils to help them engage with climate change

Since February, students in the UK have been taking part in monthly “strikes” to protest over the climate change crisis. This international movement was inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who staged what were initially lone protests outside the Swedish Riksdag with a sign that read “school strike for climate”.

Since then Ms Thunberg has become a figurehead for campaigners worldwide who are calling for a greater level of action to combat the climate emergency, and she addressed the Extinction Rebellion in London in April.

The catastrophic consequences of global warming, and the urgency of more vigorous action, were also highlighted in David Attenborough’s recent BBC film Climate Change: The Facts (May 2019).
In addition, the Labour Party has declared that if elected it will launch a review of the curriculum with a view to extending the teaching of climate change in schools (May 2019).

So where does this leave schools and how might they respond? The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has said from the outset that students should not miss school in order to take part in protests. That is not because we doubt the urgency of the situation, but because we are concerned about the wellbeing of students who are off-site and unsupervised, and the loss of learning time.

This article examines how else schools might allow students to give voice to their concerns, and how the subject of climate change might be integrated further into the existing curriculum.

There is no intention to lecture schools on what they should or should not be doing. That is a matter for you based on your professional judgement of what works best in your context. This article is intended to provide some food for thought.

Climate change in the curriculum

The national curriculum already covers climate change issues. The fact-checking website Full Fact notes that it is covered in both science and geography at key stage 3 and key stage 4.

The science curriculum includes:

  • The production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate.
  • Evidence, and uncertainties in evidence, for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change.
  • Potential effects of, and mitigation of, increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane on the Earth’s climate.

Meanwhile, the geography curriculum includes:

  • Weather and climate, including the change in climate from the Ice Age to the present.
  • How human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments and the climate; and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems.

Labour is suggesting that climate change should become a “core part” of the curriculum from primary school onwards. It says a Labour government would ensure all young people are educated about the ecological and social impact of climate change. It would also focus “on the knowledge and skills that young people need in a world that will be increasingly shaped by climate change, particularly in renewable energy and green technology jobs” (Labour Party, 2019).

Ideas for lessons and school activities

With all this in mind, what else might we do to aid understanding and give students an outlet for the anxiety that many of them feel about the climate crisis and their frustration that not enough is being done? Here are some ideas...

Get the facts

There are a wealth of online resources available for teaching about climate change. These include lesson ideas and activities for seven to 11-year-olds and 11 to 14-year-olds produced by Oxfam, climate change resources from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), and a useful summary from the BBC – Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help (April 2019).

Debate and critical thinking

Pupils could be encouraged to think critically and to take part in a debate. Is Greta Thunberg right about UK carbon emissions? See what the BBC Reality Check article says on that subject (April 2019). Is the UK being ambitious enough on its plans to reduce carbon emissions? Check out another BBC article (May 2019) on the recent report of the Committee on Climate Change (see resources for all links).

Take action

Oxfam’s classroom resources list a range of ideas for pupils. These include:

  • Invite your local government representative or business leader into school and organise a question time event or debate on climate change.
  • Carry out a waste audit in your school and use the results to help plan ways to reduce, reuse and recycle the school’s waste.
  • Ask the local council to improve public transport and cycle paths so that people use cars less.
  • Write for the local newspaper or speak on local radio to raise awareness of climate change.
  • Perform a play about climate change in your local community.
  • Write to your local MP to ask the government to do more to combat climate change.
  • Display posters around the school to encourage people to turn off lights and whiteboards when they are not in use.
  • Set up a school garden and grow vegetables for use in school dinners.

You could ask pupils to come up with their own suggestions, rank the effectiveness of different forms of action, and vote on which action to take.

You might also want to look at the ideas suggested in an article by Fiona Carnie, director of Alternatives in Education earlier this year – Ten things schools can do to address the climate crisis (March 2019). They include advice on ethical banking, growing your own vegetables, and setting up a climate crisis committee consisting of students, staff, parents and members of the local community.

Stage whole-school activities

You could dedicate a morning assembly to talking about climate change or you might want to consider other initiatives which involve the whole-school community. For example, you could allow pupils to organise a demonstration at lunchtime, share photographs on social media, and send a picture to the local newspaper.


Of course, schools already have a lot on their plates, so dedicating time to participating in activities about climate change has to be balanced with other demands. However, beyond the simple truth that it is important for pupils to understand the facts about climate change and how this issue will affect their futures, there are lots of wider educational benefits to running these activities.

Teaching about climate change links in well to the national curriculum. Discussing the issues and arranging activities helps students to develop critical thinking and organisational skills. Holding a debate encourages language learning and confidence in spoken English.

What we have seen over the past 12 months or so is a phenomenon – a global movement predominately led by young people which emanates from grassroots campaigning and which has seized the imagination.

There is a good opportunity for us in schools to link this energy to learning and to help provide our students with a voice. It is, after all, their age group which will have to live with the consequences of global warming if the world fails to respond to this critical challenge.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information & resources


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