September saw the largest climate change protest in history, with millions of people taking to the streets across the globe and demanding action. Taking part were an estimated 1.4 million school pupils, many of whom have participated in regular ‘school strikes’ over the last year, walking out of school and marching for change.

In the UK this has presented school leaders with a challenge; no matter how sympathetic they might be to the cause, mass organised absences raise a number of difficult issues. These include when, if ever, to authorise strike related non-attendance, whether there is a need for schools to adopt a formal stance on the issue, how to communicate with parents and pupils, as well as safeguarding concerns.

The legal position

It is possible for schools to authorise absence in ‘exceptional circumstances’. This can either be approved in advance, or an explanation offered afterwards can be accepted. Department for Education (DfE) guidance states that when determining whether or not to grant a leave of absence, schools should ‘consider each application individually, taking into account the specific facts and circumstances and relevant background context behind the request’. The guidance does not offer any examples of what might be considered to be exceptional, effectively granting schools a fairly broad discretion, and indeed in this scenario the DfE has stressed that the response to proposed strike action by students will be a matter for individual schools.

Only a member of staff authorised by the school’s proprietor is able to permit absences, and in practice this will usually be the head teacher or principal. In addition, the application for authorisation must be made by the parent with whom the pupil normally lives, there being no exception made for older students. Where permission has not been sought (either before or after the event) by an eligible parent or carer, schools must record the absence as unauthorised.

In determining their stance on climate action, schools must be mindful of their safeguarding and health and safety obligations towards pupils. Schools have a legal responsibility for students during school hours, and authorising an absence in these circumstances effectively endorses attendance at a mass event over which a school has no control. In addition, while the youth-led climate strikes have to date been peaceful, participation at an event of this size will inevitably pose some risk to pupils, particularly where the nearest strike is some distance away, or where younger pupils plan to attend protests unaccompanied. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a school authorises attendance at a climate strike, only for a pupil to come to some harm. In addition, there may be vulnerable pupils for whom the prospect of being out of school during scheduled hours triggers other welfare concerns.

The Association of School and College Leaders is of the view that while the strength of feeling in relation to the issue of climate change is understandable, students would better direct their energies towards school-based climate change activities. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has stressed that while the issue is one for individual schools, it considers it unlikely the strikes amount to the exceptional circumstances required to authorise absence. NAHT directs its members towards a free toolkit produced by Global Action Plan which includes content aimed at primary and secondary aged students. There is no doubt that while in many ways a headache for schools, the strikes do provide educators with a rich seam of topics for debate, engaging issues such as democracy, the role of protest, and the future of the planet.

What should schools do?

For all schools, but particularly those contemplating authorising strike-related absences, a robust and well-documented risk assessment will be vital. Schools must also follow their usual safeguarding procedures, and be mindful that there will be some children for whom being away from school poses a more serious risk than others. Where schools are on notice that a particularly vulnerable pupil plans not to attend lessons, it may be that action is required irrespective of whether that absence will be authorised. Schools must also be content that any authorised climate action is compatible with their duties to promote fundamental British values, which include both the ‘rule of law’ and ‘individual liberty’.

Ultimately, as the DfE has emphasised, there is no ‘right’ answer to this issue, with schools needing to carry out their own assessments and to keep responses under review. That said, the risks in routinely authorising absences, particularly in this context, should not be underestimated and schools must keep the duties they owe to pupils at the forefront of their minds. Regardless of a school’s stance, there is merit in ensuring it is clearly outlined to both pupils and parents.