What could be more educational than political protest?

Headmaster of Brighton College Richard Cairns not only has sympathy with students striking over climate change, but is putting their environment-protecting ideas into practice

When tens of thousands of young people in over 100 countries go on strike, all of us – governments and schools alike – have no choice but to listen. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who leads the strikes, is just 16. Like most of my pupils, she is concerned about global warming, melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels and climate chaos. Nine out of 10 children across the world breathe dangerously polluted air. Thunberg, and others like her, are right to feel angry.

At Brighton College, we want our pupils to be socially engaged. We encourage them to be responsible members of society, to have a voice, to vote and join a political party when they are old enough. Throughout their schooling, we ask them to take action, not sit back.

It would be surprising, then, if some pupils did not wish to join in the world-wide protests against climate change. Obviously, I would rather the protests were on a Saturday, but I see no problem with a youngster attending the occasional protest or demonstration when the issue of climate change is so devastatingly important to us all. So long as they have parental permission, and their whereabouts and safety can be accounted for, I support their decision to act. After all, what is not educational about political protest?

“Throughout their schooling, we ask pupils to take action, not sit back”

Of course, all young people want to make a difference. As Greta Thunberg points out, the future is theirs more than it is ours. That is why it is our responsibility, as schools, to take the lead on environmental issues. If we do, we produce a generation to whom recycling and a host of other green initiatives are second nature. We show our pupils that their ideas are listened to and acted on. More than that, we show it is possible to make a difference, not by striking one day a month, but by the choices we make 365 days a year.

We have specifically restructured the senior management team of the school to respond to this. Last September, I appointed Rachel Hughes as assistant head, overseeing outreach and partnerships. It is so important that pupils who have the great good fortune of an independent education, realise that this carries with it enormous social obligations now and in the future. It is why we sponsor a school in east London for youngsters from disadvantaged communities; it is why we work so closely with a number of local and international charities; and it is why we want our pupils’ concerns and actions regarding climate change to resonate across the wider education sector.

As headteacher, I want my pupils to become inquisitive, thoughtful individuals, excited by the prospect of finding new and interesting ways to make a difference. Climate change is at the top of that agenda

Given our seaside location, pupils are naturally concerned about pollution in our seas. Regular beach cleans take place, gathering evidence for the Surfers Against Sewage bottle deposit campaign. Last year I went further, banning single-use plastic bottles after pupils expressed horror at an episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, which documented the build-up of plastic in the oceans. Now, everyone on site – teachers and support staff as well as pupils – uses recyclable water bottles made from sugar cane. Plastic straws and disposable cups are outlawed, with the hope that we will be single use plastic-free within one year.

“Lots of kids feel very passionate about environmental issues, but didn’t know what they could do,” says Hughes. She describes how, recently, she was contacted by a lower sixth boy, asking where the materials used in the Brighton College-branded school uniform come from. “Our parents already run secondhand uniform sales and swaps,” she says. “He made the good point that, if that’s our ethos, we should also be looking at how those materials are sourced. He gave me a business proposal showing how we could do it.”

Richard Cairns

Other good ideas come from pupils. One was to switch the school’s search engine to Ecosia, which uses profits to plant trees. Another was that the flower banks around the school should be ‘wilded’, to encourage bees and other pollinators. After discussions with the head groundsman and head gardener, this should begin next term.

Walking around the school, one of the most obvious changes I see is the increase in recycling. Following pressure from our pupils’ Green Council, we have signed up to many independent recycling schemes. This means that items as varied as biscuit and cake wrappers, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, pens, crisp packets, contact lenses and their packaging, can all now be recycled; far more than the local council can offer. Pupils have also met the school’s catering team, asking why salads in the canteen were in plastic boxes and sandwiches in plastic bags. As a result, cardboard boxes and paper bags are now used instead.

From the archive:
Brighton College’s Richard Cairns has long since been one of the more progressive heads in the country. Here, for example, he explains why removing uniform gender labels was one of the school’s best decisions, and here he outlines last September’s decision to ban all single-use plastic bottles from the school

Naturally, some issues take longer to resolve than others. One ongoing debate concerns the use of diesel vehicles, implicated in air pollution. To make sure our decision was as informed as possible, a group of sixth form scientists was asked to research the issue. They completed a 10-page report and presented it to me. Their conclusion was that, while banning diesel vehicles from the school site was not necessarily useful, existing minibuses should be replaced with electric versions. Electric charging points have been installed, and I will make the change to electric minibuses as soon as they are available for schools.

Not all the changes have been popular, at least at first. One of my more controversial decisions has been reducing the amount of meat the school consumes. During our recent Green Week, we spearheaded an entirely vegetarian lunch menu. This featured a variety of tasty ingredients – including tofu, quorn and pulses – but provoked widespread indignation among one or two of our larger rugby players, who were heard to mutter they were not receiving enough protein, until the director of rugby told them that, in fact, all those ingredients have protein in them.

“When young people go on strike, all of us – governments and schools alike – have no choice but to listen”

The happy result of the week was that a great number of vegetarian dishes were trialled by canteen staff and eaten by pupils. Now the school has ‘Meat-free Monday’, featuring those dishes found to be most popular. This weekly chance to help the planet is now embraced with relish.

All this, of course, is just the start. Much more needs to be done and, with the support of pupils, parents and staff, we will work to ensure it is.

What we have learnt is that young people must have a choice. No one likes to be told they have to do something, nor that they cannot. When pupils are given a say in what occurs, the decisions they make are thoughtful and well-informed.

As headteacher, I want my pupils to become inquisitive, thoughtful individuals, excited by the prospect of finding new and interesting ways to make a difference. Climate change is at the top of that agenda. And, as anyone who has read David Wallace-Wells’ book The Uninhabitable Earth will know, the devastating consequences of climate change are not gently appearing over the horizon, but hurtling towards us like a locomotive. The need to act is urgent. Before it is too late.

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