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Education ministers divided over planned school strike for the climate

Illustration picture shows a demonstration called 'Fridays for future' organised by Youth for Climate Belgium, Friday 19 March 2021, in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK)
05:49 14/10/2021

In contrast to her Flemish counterpart who criticised the planned school strike for the climate to be held next week, the French-speaking education minister Caroline Désir appeared on Wednesday to be much more in favour of the initiative.

On Sunday, during a climate march in Brussels that brought together tens of thousands of people, Youth for Climate activist Anuna De Wever announced a new series of school strikes, the first of which is planned for 22 October.

"I understand the mobilisation of young people on this climate issue and that I understand that this mobilisation is gaining momentum in the run-up to the next COP," said the minister, referencing the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) which takes place in Glasgow in a fortnight. She added that schoolchildren joining a climate strike "could make sense in terms of learning, but also in terms of the development of citizenship and commitment".

She also expressed the hope that educators could take up this theme ahead of the event, which she said could be a way for young people to fight against the feeling of powerlessness and eco-anxiety that many feel in the face of the climate threat.

After a year and a half of schooling disrupted by the health crisis, the minister however warned against any this strike for the climate becoming a weekly occurrence, as had happened in 2019.

In secondary education, strikes always carried out on the same day and time would impact on the same courses being undertaken at the time of the strike, which would then harm learning, warned Désir.

Flemish education minister Ben Weyts has asked schools to consider the absence of pupils due to participation in climate action as unjustified, he told the Flemish parliament on Wednesday.

"One cannot say that one is concerned about the learning delay and the quality of teaching and at the same time turn a blind eye,” he said. “We pursue a policy of combating all forms of school absenteeism. We must avoid it in any form," he said, recalling that the school closures brought in to fight the pandemic had affected the most fragile students.

Nothing prevents students from protesting after school hours or during the weekend, Weyts added, saying: "The march last weekend showed that there is no need to not attend school."

Green MP Elisabeth Meuleman countered by saying that "if we want this school strike for the climate to stop, we must discuss it with these young people and set up an ambitious climate policy".

Written by Nick Amies