Teaching union concern after pupils walk out for Belfast climate change rally
A teaching union has expressed concern after thousands of schoolchildren walked out of the classroom and into Belfast city centre yesterday to join action over climate change.
While many students attended in official groups, hundreds more took the opportunity to leave their studies behind and join the growing call on world leaders for more action to combat global warming.
Patrick Corrigan, the Northern Ireland director of Amnesty International, had been criticised by the DUP after urging schools to allow students to attend the rally, one of thousands taking place around the world.
"Two weeks ago, I wrote to all school principals encouraging them to facilitate their students to take part in the climate strike," he said.
"Former DUP education minister Peter Weir called me 'irresponsible'. Today, the most responsible people in Belfast gave him their response."
A midday gathering at Corn Market, where several of the young people gave impassioned speeches, led to a mass 'die-in' with hundreds lying on the ground in protest.
A march through the city centre to City Hall followed, where there were boos when student striker Ellie Crawford told the crowds that the DUP and Ulster Unionists had not replied to invites to address them.
"It's a bit strange when our attendance is being questioned, when Stormont hasn't been running in two years," she said.
Leading teachers' union the NASUWT said that while it supported everyone's right to protest, pupils attending without permission from schools raised several issues.
"Teachers have a duty of care to their pupils," a spokesperson said.
"Where children and young people walk out of school, they are potentially putting themselves and others at risk.
"Failure to accurately record pupils' attendance or absence from school is in breach of the legal duties and could result in disciplinary action being taken.
"Schools may also be vulnerable to future legal claims by parents or pupils if they fail to act in accordance with the relevant statutory provisions.
"The NASUWT believes that there are now opportunities to highlight the climate crisis and to encourage conversations and other activities within schools."
The turn-out from across Northern Ireland was far in excess of what was expected and Green Party leader Clare Bailey said students who attended should be praised.
"These young people will suffer the greatest effects of climate breakdown and should be rewarded for striking, not punished for it," she said.
"They are demanding action on climate action and we're urging schools to support them on taking a stand."
Among the school pupils taking part was Our Lady and St Patrick's College Knock student Cara Dornan.
"It's so important because young people today are experiencing so much anxiety about this," she said.
"People don't want to plan their futures as much. What's the point if there's not going to be a planet to live on in 20 or 30 years' time?"
Her school friend Faye Purdy said she has been put off shopping by the amounts of plastic in our shops. "I get anxious every time I go out and see the packaging in our stores," she said.
"We're all here to tell our governments we care, we want action and we're are not going to stay quiet any more."
Among the charities taking part in the call for action, Jennifer Fulton, chief executive of Ulster Wildlife, said it was fantastic to see young people taking a lead.
"It's important to take action now," she said. "This is their future, they're having a say and it's important that their message is heard."
Lord Mayor John Finucane and deputy Peter McReynolds addressed the crowds at City Hall. Mr Finucane also hosted a breakfast for organisers ahead of the rally.