On Fridays, when Senior School pupils in Years 9 – 13 meet in their house groups, I tend to make my way to say hello to the year 7 and 8 forms who have a longer registration period when they spend time with their tutors, a gentler way to ease oneself into Friday routines. I never quite know what to expect – lively debates, story time, quizzes, impassioned presentations, charades, quiet time and whispered pupil-tutor discussions have all featured as I invite myself along to ask how things have been in the last week: what every visitor seems to be assured of is a cheerfully rapturous welcome! As I set out along the corridors this week, I knew that the older pupils were metabolising the last fortnight’s deliberations in Glasgow as they listened to feed-back from their house sustainability champions; the younger ones were coming to terms with what pupils across the country have got wrong on TikTok, posting cleverly-manufactured, satirical and often hurtful clips of their teachers for Likes.
A highlight of Highgate’s COP26 schedule was our mock climate conference: young people in Years 11, 12 and 13 from Highgate and four of our partner schools – the London Academies of Excellence, in Tottenham and Stratford, Acland Burghley and Highgate Wood School – came together to recreate their own UN-style negotiations. Chaired and guided by the Inter-School Climate Network, the delegates took over the Sir Martin Gilbert Library and took on the mantle of twelve countries from around the globe.
Reading the feed-back from our student delegates, I was struck by quite how much realism had characterised their participation. Of course, there was the optimism, hope and passion we would look for in the next generation, but it was marked by a well-informed understanding of how difficult change will be. As one delegate said: “It was a brilliant event. We all learned so much about the issues affecting each country. We learned a lot about the processes involved in the real event, both about how important it is that action happens, but also how hard it is, and about the need for compromise.” Does it need to be so hard?
I won’t be alone in wondering quite how what we could do now as adults to change things so that compromise and cooperation will come more easily than they do to our representatives on their way home from Scotland. As I mulled this over on my way past the multiple, lively house meetings, it struck me that the vested interests we see playing out internationally have their parallels in our own more domestic sustainability wrangles: the convenience of driving, the transformational possibilities of digital communication, the quick solutions of online shopping in busy lives, the opportunity through flying for travel, discovery and encounter, the tantalising pleasures of fashion, and of food from around the world – all of these are, let’s face it, temptations which require self-discipline and moral fibre to resist. Brilliant and necessary as the scientific, political and economic explanations of the impact on the planet of human behaviours, they aren’t, it seems, sufficient to bring about change either in Glasgow or at home. We need more.
And so, I wondered why some people, particularly why some young people, are already so climate-conscious that they have made decisions about leading their lives differently. Listening to some of the older student delegates, it felt as if they were responding at a level of faith and belief, a level fed by research and enquiry no doubt, but the almost uncomfortable implacability of their commitment was rooted in conviction that to do anything else was not just cataclysmic but simply wrong, and morally so.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should make environmental sustainability a religion, but we know that moral thinking, the understanding of right and wrong, needs teaching and teaching from the youngest age, well before the critical faculties to evaluate the degrees of rightness or wrongness are developed. Honesty, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, acceptance – we fail to inculcate these values and to model them at our and our children’s peril, and so we do. Children practise making the right, making good, decisions and being a moral person becomes part of who they are. Caring for our world surely needs to become one of the moral absolutes we have to pass on to our children if their, if our, if human, society, is to survive. We, the older generation, will have to make do with stringent regulation and direction, perhaps, but listening to your children last week, I sense that they are ready and open to live very differently indeed.
So, one feature of the world we find ourselves in (rather, the world we have created for ourselves!) requires a shift in the way we teach our children about moral absolutes. Perhaps it’s no surprise that technological advance is making the same demands on our children’s moral nerve endings: the ability to say what you like and to do so anonymously has accompanied the extraordinarily creative, transformational flowering of media which have seen us through, or partly through, lockdown and isolation, brought down air travel, given voice to the dispossessed and so much more. What the printing press (and we may argue whether it was European or Chinese and Korean printers who can claim the credit) was to do for learning, intellectual and religious freedom and ultimately for democracy, just think what the internet and social media have done. But the (cliché alert) unintended consequences of anonymity and no accountability are difficult to resolve, it feels, through regulation or technology. I wonder then whether we need to hardwire moral compunction into our young souls: say nothing untrue or hurtful, and use anonymity only for a much greater, moral good; after all, we have seen just how courageously young people have spoken up in confidence and anonymously, without cruelty or malice, for just such a greater, moral good.
‘How can we make up for how teachers are feeling, across the country?’ I asked my cheery, thoughtful Year 8s as they somewhat nervously scanned my TikTok-weary face. ‘Say sorry?’ said one. ‘We could be really nice to them,’ said another. That felt pretty good: sort of cuts through, doesn’t it? Just shows why it’s worth getting it right, why the young – even when they get it wrong – are what ‘it’ has to be about.