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The 15th of February marked a turning point in modern student activism, with an estimated 15,000 pupils skipping school to attend climate protests across the UK.

And thousands of children across the world are expected to walk out of their classrooms today to bring more attention to the global climate crisis.

Understandably, the concept of students deciding to walk out on classes without permission triggered plenty of debate, some of which overshadowed the protests themselves.

Nevertheless, student activism has been unleashed for this generation of children, and that leaves teachers and schools asking one big question – should it be encouraged?

Activism Nurtures Citizenship

There are whole swathes of the curriculum dedicated to developing students’ sense of community and civic responsibility.

Indeed, Young Citizens, the charity and lobbying group, point out that democracies need “active, information and responsible citizens”, and this forms the basis for much citizenship education in schools.

Surely, then, activism should be an extension of this?

Student activism campaigns certainly help to remind young people that there’s a world beyond the school gates that should command their attention. It helps to develop an interest in that world, enabling students to feel invested in it and committed to improving it.

To create future citizens who will benefit society, these citizens must first be encouraged to believe they can. In this sense, student activism performs a vital role in a young person’s development.

It can also be suggested that the skills developed by participation in student activism are complementary to those learned in the classroom. Being part of student protests can lead to improved confidence and communication skills, as young people find they need to convey their aims effectively to those around them.

Even so, is student activism a strong enough reason for students to abandon their desks?

Setting Unrealistic Expectations

Attitudes of young people can often favour two extremes – the ones who believe that they can’t change anything and the ones who are convinced they’re going to be the generation that changes everything.

Unfortunately, teachers and school leaders know that it’s never that simple and that effecting real change takes years of determination and innovation. As Marc Hudson of the University of Manchester reiterates, the traditional social movement activities of marches, petitions and protests soon grow stale and students will need to innovate to get attention.

Do we risk students becoming frustrated and demoralised by their inability to effect change through their activism? Couldn’t this backfire and create citizens who are less engaged because they don’t think they can achieve anything?

Do we also risk implying to the students who can’t get involved for whatever reason (background, disability, other commitments) that they are inferior for not pursuing student activism when they may contribute to society in other ways?

Student activism demonstrates to teachers, school leaders and parents that young people are interested in the world beyond their own lived experiences. Protests and marches represent exciting ways for students to get involved with issues that could change the world.

However, behind the scenes, schools must encourage students to equip themselves with the tools to effect those changes.