“We are the majority”. Speech to the XR picket of the DFE.

I convene the NEU Climate Change Network and edit the Greener Jobs Alliance Newsletter, which brings together trade unionists active on climate breakdown with climate activists serious about working in and through the unions. Please look us up and check us out.

I’m here as a warm up for XR Youth, who will be talking about what schools are for in a few minutes, so lets think about that.

Michael Gove’s favourite Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, said that every society reproduces itself through its education system.

But, if the society we have is unsustainable, schools have to anticipate a sustainable society and transform themselves as part of the process of constructing it. That necessarily challenges the existing social, political and economic order.

In assessing the Department for Education we should measure their performance against the legal obligation under Article 12 of the Paris Agreement; which states

Parties (that’s governments) will cooperate…to enhance climate education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information recognising the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this agreement.

That means that the whole of society – not just schools and universities, but all media, all government at national, regional and local level – should be participating in a mutually reinforcing education and action movement to prevent climate change and respond to its impacts.

Hands up if you think they are doing that… (there were no hands).

I think that Just Stop Oil people on the media are spot on in turning the question “are you bringing the public with you?” back onto media interviewers. Why are they not dealing with it? We have to be here, partly because they are not doing their job.

Photo Graham Petersen Portrait of the author as an old man.

Looking at what the DFE is doing in its Net Zero Plan, there are two fundamental flaws

  1. There is no plan to review the entire curriculum and no integrated skills programme. Some institutions are doing amazing work. Some primary schools integrate their whole curriculum around climate and sustainability. Manchester Met University has a climate module built into every course. But in a climate emergency that should be the norm; and its criminally negligent that it isn’t.
  2. There is no plan – and no budget – to retrofit the entire schools estate to Zero Carbon by 2030. Small pockets of money are made available to be bid for, which allows for partial works in penny packets here and there; but its left to individual schools and Local Authorities to find their own way. Again, some places are taking a lead, Newcastle City Council aims to retrofit all its schools by 2030. Hats off to them, but again, this should be normative and treated with urgency.

Even the good things they are doing, the National Nature Park, which aims to link up all school, college and University grounds into one greening space, and the requirement for all schools to have a Sustainability Lead by the end of this year – have no budget.

By contrast, in the last Budget, the Ministry of Defence got an extra £5 billion, companies were handed £9 billion in investment tax relief for investments they were going to make anyway.

Anticipating this critique, and responding to the school students strike movement, the DFE published, at the same time as their Net Zero Strategy, its guide to teaching “controversial subjects” with “impartiality”. This is a more subtle version of what Ron DiSantis doing in Florida. DiSantis bans books to do with racism, gay rights. What we have here is a requirement to teach “controversial subjects” like world poverty, racism, the legacy of Empire and climate breakdown in a “balanced” manner.

Which is mind boggling. How do you teach about racism in a “balanced” way? On the one hand, Martin Luther King…on the other hand Adolf Hitler? What are you “balancing”?

Let’s be clear about this. Hands up if you think that the impartiality guidance means that you have to teach climate denial in the interests of balance? – (No hands up. Cries of “No!”)

You’re right. We won that one. This is what the guidance says. “Schools do not need to present misinformation, such as unsubstantiated claims that anthropogenic climate change is not occurring to provide balance”.

Its a pity that that message hasn’t got through to the rest of the government. A spokesperson for the Department for Business and Trade said recently “There are various think tanks in Westminster that have sceptical views about climate change, and Ministers meet those people all the time”. One of them is right behind us, right here, the Adam Smith Institute.

And that guidance was just for the facts in the Science and Geography curriculum. Climate breakdown becomes “a political issue” when discussing what we do about it. So, you can see why a governing Party that

  • abstained on the Parliamentary motion to declare a climate emergency
  • contains within in the organised core of Parliamentary climate change denial in the form of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, which includes current Ministers
  • was taken to court because its Net Zero plans did not meet its targets, and lost

would be sensitive about this and want teachers and students to be inhibited about discussing it. Am I being “partisan” in pointing this out?

There are two aspects to this.

  1. Mainstream Parties, those represented in Parliament, will have different approaches to climate breakdown. The guidance prohibits “partisan” support for any of these. So, you couldn’t walk into a classroom waving the Labour or Green Party Manifestoes over your head and calling for support for them. But, you wouldn’t do that anyway. No one would. And the guidance doesn’t stop you teaching the facts about what different Parties say in relation to the crisis and discussing them through. It also does not prohibit the expression of a personal point of view, as long as you identify it as such and make it clear that other views are available.
  2. “Extremism”. The definition of views that are not expressed within the mainstream parties, particularly when linked to campaigns of Non Violent Direct Action, as “extremist”. As all the mainstream responses are inadequate, this dovetails with overall government attempts to close down the space for protest and dissent and, on this issue, shoot the messenger.

What this doesn’t take into account is that we are the majority. Two out of three people want more action to prevent climate breakdown. It has been a top four voter concern for well over a year and will become more so as the crisis intensifies. At the risk of being “partisan”, is this top voter concern one of Rishi Sunak’s top five priorities? Who is it that’s out of step here?

So, because we are the majority, we should not allow the Thought Police into our heads. We need a full, open, exploratory discussion in schools and society – because no one has all the answers, we’re making this up as we go along and its not all under control. The people in charge do not have a grip, and too often have a vested interest in not getting one.

So, getting colleagues, management, parents, governors, students all on board is crucial.

I’ll leave you with a quote from UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez, to put all this “extremist” stuff in context and might make a good start for a Philosophy for Children session.

“The truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness”.