Gresham’s headteacher: if pupils want to protest like Greta Thunberg we must support them

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (right) at the House of Commons Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wi

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (right) at the House of Commons Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Douglas Robb, headmaster of Gresham's School, says we must listen to powerful young voices like Greta Thunberg but also support those who want to change the world in other ways

Greshams Headmaster, Douglas Robb

Greshams Headmaster, Douglas Robb - Credit: Archant

Last summer Greta Thunberg, then 15, skipped school in Sweden to protest against climate change outside the Swedish parliament. She has now been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and has been dubbed the 'poster girl' of climate change, inspiring demonstrations by young people across the world.

This week she was in London to give a speech to MPs after being invited to Westminster after inspiring the school climate strikes movement.

I support all young people who are proactive in demonstrating and getting involved in debates around pressing national and world issues; it is good to see them fired up and feeling the solidarity of other young people's shared passions and beliefs. Age has made me, and many of my contemporaries, cynical and I watch televised reports of pathetically behaved adults point-scoring and shouting at each other in parliament and am not surprised that politics is a turn-off for many young people today.

Unfortunately, the trendy hypocrisy that emanates from some politicians and high profile 'role-models' does nothing to help – a quick search of social media will reveal the irony of airline tycoon Richard Branson's proposed 'strategy to tackle climate change' hasn't been lost on the public.

In this context, I worry that so many young people see any action they may take as just a waste of time. They feel impotent about the big challenges we face, in particular climate change.

They see themselves as just a tiny fish in the massive ocean and believe that they are not able to make a difference.

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My hope is that, hearing the cries of youth, governments will take action on these young people's behalf and create legislation that will force positive changes, throughout supply chains from manufacturers to retailers and end-users in, for example, single use plastics and motorcar usage. To my mind, compulsory taxation of un-environmentally friendly behaviours, both in industry and among consumers, will bring about the fastest and most effective change for the better.

In schools we have a duty to ensure that students understand that it is not just noisy demonstrations that will impact change. By studying and learning about the science of climate change, for example, young people can prepare and equip themselves to contribute to future innovations in engineering, farming, manufacturing, as well as fields such as consumer behavioural science, when they finish their schooling and move on into the workplace.

Some senior educators have expressed their concern that the climate strike and other demonstrations are being used by young people as an 'excuse' for a day off school. I believe that each individual has their own personal contribution to make and that they should be encouraged to do this is whatever way their feel most appropriate.

Young people can inspire each other to make changes in their own lives or, like Greta, they can climb on a soap box and raise awareness.

So, while we wait to see what action governments will take, it is our job to help the young people in our care to see that everyone can be proactive in working towards a better world, through their own personal choices and living more ecologically concerned lifestyles; by increasing their knowledge and, in turn, their ability to have a positive impact in the workplace; and through creating awareness of issues, in the way that the climate strikes have done.

We all know that big changes need to be made and, in schools, our role is to open students' minds to the dilemmas and new ideas of today and nurture the courage and commitment they need to deal with the big lumpy issues, and the thick skins they need to protect them against what other people might think.

In Greta's own words, 'they just told me everything will be all right. That didn't help, of course, but it was good to talk. And then I kept on going……and, after a while, they started listening to what I actually said. That's when I kind of realised I could make a difference.'

Then, whether they choose to join public protests and demonstrations; to take action in their personal lives through their purchasing and consumption behaviours; or study to become a climate scientist or conservationist, they will be well-equipped and more likely to succeed in their goals.