The UK armed forces visit thousands of schools each year. They offer school presentation teams, ‘careers advisors’, lessons plans, away days and more. While they claim that this is not recruiting, the Ministry of Defence itself states that the activities enable them to “provide positive information to influence future opinion formers, and to enable recruiters to access the school environments.” Their youth policy, including school-based cadet forces, aims to create “the conditions whereby recruiting can flourish.” This is a long-term approach to recruiting young people both as supporters of the armed forces and, for some, softening them up for actual enlistment.
An injection of ideology
The Government has recently indicated that there will be an expansion of cadet forces within state schools to encourage the ‘spirit of service’ and they have established a number of schemes such as ex-services mentoring and 'troops to teachers'.
Another recent development is the Pheonix Free School, to be run entirely by ex-military. With a 'zero-tolerance' approach to discipline, the proposed head teacher of the school states that it “will discard moral relativism and child-centred educational theory. 'Self-esteem' training is out.... Competition...is in.” (1) Proposed by the right-wing policy think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, there is clearly an ideological political agenda at work which pays no attention to professional concerns that military values may not be appropriate within the educational system. Another right-wing think tank, ResPublica is advocating the development of military-sponsored academies, “officially backed by the Armed Services and delivered by the Cadet Associations”. (2) The proposal was presented as a response to the 2011 riots and has been condemned by the NASUWT, the largest teaching union in the UK, as 'national service for the poor'.
The rhetoric around increasing military influence within schools is one of instilling discipline and values but it is based on quite a number of unevidenced assumptions, including: that those who have served in the military are better able than teachers to create productive learning environments; that the military is better than community-based or other activities in developing the 'spirit of service', and that parents look to the military as embodying values they wish their children to absorb.
The legal framework
One of the characteristics of armed forces' involvement in UK educational establishments is that relationships between them and the school are informaly established, unlike the US for example, where the military have a legal right to visit schools. Indeed, the armed forces claim that the school must make the first contact. While this is a simplification, it does suggest that it is within the schools authorities that awareness and attitudes need to be addressed.
With the perception by many of the military as uncontroversial or even to be promoted – much boosted in recent years by various government measures - it is unsurprising that schools accept the armed forces' offer with readiness, as free resources and as benign.
There is a legal framework to ensure balance and guard against political indoctrination of younger children. In particular, section 407 of the Education Act 1996 states that when polictial issues are “brought to the attention of pupils” they must be “offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”. Developing an understanding that military activities and materials constitute a view, that information is presented from a particular, very biased, perspective and that alternative perspectives need to be made available to young people is a vital step to effectively challenging schools on their acceptance of the military.
Schools are legally required under the Children's Act 1989 to act ‘in loco parentis’, assuming a duty of care for children and acting as a 'reasonable parent'. Surely a reasonable parent would present a balanced picture to a child in their care and ensure they are provided with an understanding that allows them to make an informed choice about decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.
Creating debate and empowering action
ForcesWatch aim to develop that understanding of military involvement as essentially biased and therefore controversial and that schools have a legal, and moral, duty to deny the armed forces uncontested access to young people. We want to raise the level of debate and thereby open a space for challenging the policy and presenting alterative perspectives.
We are producing materials that will empower and assist teachers, parents and students to question and confront their school or college on the presence of the military. While the prevalence of militarism more generally within society also operates as a tool to engage young people, the education system offers a direct opportunity for the military to bypass the 'gatekeepers' that protect a child's interests. We aim to support parents, carers and students themselves in resisting this agenda, building on work done by teaching unions in England and Scotland as well as campaigns waged by students themselves.
ForcesWatch are gathering as much information as possible on military activities in individual schools and colleges to inform this work and have developed surveys (for teachers and staff and for parents and students) that can be completed online. If you have experience of the military within education, we need to hear from you. See http://forceswatch.net for surveys, resources and more.