Having fun with Stephen Twigg’s proposals on having the military taking over schools.
Many of Puffles’ Twitter followers reacted with a mixture of fear, dismay or complete lampoonery following Labour’s idea to have military schools. My initial reaction was “Why not choose nurses instead? How about having entire schools producing cohorts fully trained in first aid?” Then it was “Why not go to the old-fashioned idea of having teachers running schools? They are a graduate profession after all.” As far as public services are concerned, health and education are two of the most politicised issues there are. Which is why it’s interesting to see people from the left of the Tories (Philip Blond in particular in The Guardian) supporting an idea coming from the Labour right.
The other irony I picked up was that Stephen Twigg famously defeated a then very right-wing defence secretary Michael Portillo – with people saying that not even Portillo would have come up with a suggestion like this.
So where has this idea come from? Well…let’s look at the words of Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy, Shadow Education and Defence Secretaries respectively.
We are all incredibly proud of the work our Armed Forces do in keeping us safe at home and abroad.
To what extent has that been reflected by policies of successive governments in terms of ensuring they are properly equipped for combat, and that they & their families are properly housed given the ultimate sacrifices politicians call on them to make?
They are central to our national character, just as they are to our national security.
In the days if conscription perhaps. The historian in me recalls reading about many politicians who served on the front line before entering Parliament. Today, I’d take a guess that relatively few people have any real idea of what being in the armed forces is all about – both the joys and pressures. They might be central to the establishment’s character, and play a central role in our nation’s (and the world’s) military and historical narrative, but I’d guess that schools, hospitals and transport probably play a bigger role for more people. That’s not to criticise the military – it’s just that there are more schools and hospitals around than military bases. I think.
The ethos and values of the Services can be significant not just on the battlefield but across our society, including in schools.
Veterans and reservists can be great role models. The values of responsibility, comradeship, hard work and a respect for public service are embodied in our Armed Forces. The “Service ethos” emphasises the importance of character formation and high ethical standards, as well as the development of crucial skills such as team-working.
They are also embodied across the public sector, each in the face of their own challenges – whether the unpaid extra hours healthcare professionals put in, to teachers running out of school activities unpaid and in their own time even to the civil servants that give up their weekends and money to organise events to drive through improvements to improve public services. Please lets not divide various aspects of public services.
Labour wants to see more opportunities for young people to benefit from these attributes and our Policy Review is looking at innovative ways to achieve this. There are a wide range of ways this could be done, from widening access to schemes like cadet forces and mentoring, to creating new schools with service specialisms where there is demand.
Widening access to cadets and mentoring for those that want it, while sounding nice is hardly ground-breaking. If looking at it from a party-political perspective, it’s one that would sit easily with the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.
As for new schools, demand from who and where? Demand from parents along the free schools/academies context? Demand from armed forces recruiters? (To what extent is this consistent with further cuts to the armed forces and longer term UK foreign policy?) Are we talking about new build schools or the conversion of existing ones under new management? What would the curriculum look like?
We are looking at the benefits of a cadre of Armed Services mentors, mainly veterans and reservists, to work closely with those in need of guidance and support. Reservists use civilian skills to support the military and the reverse should also be true.
Who are they? What sort of guidance and support do they need? What sort of support and guidance will veterans and reservists get? Will this be paid/funded? If so, how? What physical infrastructure needs to be in place? Will they operate from a base or be ‘out and about’? Again, hardly ground-breaking and something that would sit easily with the other two parties.
We would also like to see more young people from state schools joining the cadets. At the end of the last school year, there were 257 Combined Cadet Force contingents in UK schools, of which 196 were in private schools. So while private schools only account for 8 per cent of all schools they have 76 per cent of the cadet forces. We would like to see the proportion in state schools increase and would support greater partnering between schools which have a cadet force and state schools which don’t, but want one.
Have you asked why these figures are as they are? How are these cadet forces funded? Is this an additional subsidy from the state that allows some privately-educated children to have more diverse CVs and experiences compared to their state-school counterparts? Or are cadets’ activities in those schools fully funded from fees, endowments and private donations? Given the cuts to public spending, how will you resource the expansion of cadets?
There is good evidence of the benefits. Research from the University of Southampton suggests that “cadets tend to have high levels of respect for authority and others, and high levels of self-esteem. They are likely to be committed citizens and have heightened aspirations.”
Respect for authority and respect for society are not the same thing. It’s just as important to know when to question authority as it is to obey it. For example it was respect for the authority of the churches that allowed its abuses to go on for decades throughout the 20th Century. Given that earlier on in the article you mentioned the vast majority of schools that had cadets units in them were private schools, to what extent can the benefits claimed be attributed to being in the cadets versus other factors such as stable family, income and education/occupation of parents? (I can’t find the original research so at present genuinely don’t know the answer).
Our Policy Review is also examining the case for a number of specialist “Service Schools” where parents and communities want them. They could employ ex-Forces personnel as qualified teachers, offer mentoring support, have a cadet force on site and offer adventurous outdoor training. They could use their autonomy to develop specialisms in areas such as international affairs, history or physical education. There are already good examples of success. The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover specialises in science, sport, physical and outdoor education, and is trialling a BTEC qualification in Military Music. Results are impressive: pupils do twice as well as the national average at GCSE, including in English and Maths.
They’d have to qualify as teachers first (unless you’re going along with proposals to remove the requirement for teaching to be a post-graduate profession). Why does it need a cadet force to do adventurous outdoor training? There are a whole host of other people and organisations that could get involved. Developing specialisms in areas such as international affairs…again, why restrict it to the army? There are a whole host of charities and NGOs which might be far better placed to deliver this. It doesn’t require an entire school to develop a specialism in international affairs.
As for the Royal Military School, it’s a state boarding school – one that ‘styles’ itself as an independent school but without the high fees. How many people either on benefits, disabled or on low/minimum wages could afford those fees? I can’t see anything that says it’s open to state school ‘day’ school children who could attend free of charge. Therefore to compare this school to other schools in the state sector is a nonsense.
Of course, new or existing state schools of all types could take advantage of these specialisms, but we think there would be an opportunity for specialist Service Schools to be established as academies and benefit from appropriate external sponsors, working in partnership with the Armed Forces, the Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations and Service charities. Labour’s academies programme always had a strong focus on bringing in external “sponsors” to support a school financially and with renewed leadership and expertise. By contrast, the Government has focused on converting schools without bringing in an outside sponsor.
Don’t the armed forces have enough problems to deal with without having to deal with schools? You then have the risk of Whitehall turf wars. Who would these schools be ultimately accountable to? The Defence Secretary or the Education Secretary? What would it mean for civil servants in both departments? Also, whose budget would the money come from? What are the processes for dispute resolution? A potential bureaucratic nightmare?
Making the most of the expertise that exists within our Armed Forces can not only give young people opportunities to learn from service people’s many transferable talents, but also a greater awareness of the Forces and their values.
Is this currently reflected in the support that service personnel being made redundant and those ex-service personnel who have fallen on hard times?
A recent report by the think tank ResPublica outlined how offering young people opportunities to learn from the ethos of the Forces could help tackle disadvantage and even promote social mobility, a goal central to Labour’s philosophy. We would expect specialist Service Schools to be particularly popular in communities with the greatest social and economic need, which have never had the same range of educational opportunities as more affluent areas.
Apart from people screaming that this is the real purpose – to turn the children of the poor into the cannon fodder for misguided politicians and elites of the future – why would such schools be popular in economically deprived communities? Is it because they will be better resourced? Better run? Can those things be achieved by engaging with other cadets – for example involving St John Ambulance or the fire cadets? What is it about service schools – and service personnel that can give young people from economically deprived communities the opportunities that the state cannot currently provide? It shouldn’t surprise you that at the same time as the Telegraph article cites the ResPublica thinktank that its founder Philip Blond had his article in support of the proposals published in The Guardian at the same time. Coincidence? The research paper concerned is Military Academies: Tackling disadvantage, improving ethos and changing outcomes. (Which, for the record I’ve not yet read in detail but the recommendations make clear its solution is military academies (p15)).
These plans would also provide new career opportunities and skills for those leaving the Forces at a time when many are entering a strained jobs market.
If the issue is skills in a tough jobs market, doesn’t this suggest a role for employers to play a more engaged and active role in schools, and that there is a wider problem of unemployment in general?
All of these measures would aim to better integrate military and civilian communities and families, ensuring there is mutual support before and after military service, and that our troops can continue to make an enormous contribution to our country away from the frontline. The Government has spoken about making more of the military in education, but its programmes are either yet to deliver or have lapsed into populist, disciplinarian sentiment. Our plans are not about creating “boot camps”, nor are they about recruitment. Rather, we want to provide life-changing skills in areas such as leadership and teamwork to give more young people the chance to benefit from the unique resources of our Services.
When it comes to schools, it is clear that our Armed Services can be a force for good.
Why not have your central policy theme: “Integrating military and civilian communities”? It is ever so easy for this policy to be spun as “Boot camps for toe-rags”. There are problems of discipline in schools – it goes with the territory. There are also wider problems of anti-social behaviour in society. But when it comes to respect for and in society, what’s been going on in politics with MPs’ expenses, phone hacking by newspapers and the debacles of the banking crises…exactly. But no one’s talked about sending in the army to sort out Parliament, Wapping/Fleet Street or the City.
An independent voice for the military?
I think it’s a shame that the armed forces have been dragged into this. Why? Because they do not have a public voice. At the moment they cannot – because of a long-standing convention that the military (rightly) stays out of party politics. Civil servants have trade unions, the police have the Police Federation…but who do the armed forces have? Is it therefore any surprise that serious issues affecting armed forces are so easily swept under the political carpet under a sea of political platitudes? You’ve heard the headlines about equipment (or the lack of), the regular tours of duties in unimaginably hostile places, and the poor housing that I linked to above. I can’t even begin to wonder what other challenges face our service personnel given the life experiences they face.
It’s one of the reasons why I started following Doug Beattie on Twitter – or to give him his full due, Captain Doug Beattie MC – his citation for his Military Cross speaking for itself. He’s written a couple of excellent blogposts on ‘fear’ – this one in July 2012 and one for Channel 4 18 months before that. As someone on long term medication for an anxiety disorder these insights are in a completely different league. But it was only because of social media that I – and perhaps you too are able to get that insight. Ditto with Charlie Fox and her blog (her partner is in the forces). Without the two of them, I simply would not get the insights that I do.
Integrating military and civilian communities is not a bad thing. But before we start looking at schools run by the military, should we not be dealing with problems faced by personnel making the transition from military to civilian life? Within that wider context the role of ex and reserve personnel can then be looked at in other parts of public services. The way Twigg and Murphy have set their plans out strikes me as something that has not been given nearly enough serious thought.
Respect for the military
The problem I have with the political and media portrayals of ‘respect for the military’ is that the whole thing feels extremely infantilised – whether it’s the ‘glitzing up’ of Remembrance Day, woeful commentary at The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee or badly-thought-out proposals such as these. Service personnel have achieved amazing feats, but let’s not pretend that they are a magic bullet to society’s and politicians’ ills. It’s not fair on those who joined up. Politicians have got a kicking from the military in the past – remember William Hague being slapped down for calling for the army to take over the response to foot and mouth?
My take is that rank and file military need a much stronger voice to call politicians out on things like living conditions, mental health and family support. What that should look like I don’t know. Does there need to be an equivalent of the Police Federation for the military or does that risk politicising the military and breaking that longstanding convention I mentioned earlier? Along side that, would greater interaction both at a local level and through social media between service personnel put greater and more informed pressure on our politicians to make them think more than twice before sending our armed forces on questionable military escapades?