Written for the Young Fabian's Anticipations magazine.
Stephen Twigg’s recent show of support for military schools has provoked some very strong reactions, both positive and negative. Although
this policy has yet to be fully fleshed out, so the full conception of the
schools yet to be seen, it is unlikely that this idea will solve all the
problems of inequality of opportunity, nor will it create a country of child
soldiers. Potentially, military schools could have real, practical advantages
in their ability to deal with poor discipline and equipped pupils with skills
that academic education alone often does not, but that does not mean there are
not potential pitfalls and problems with this policy.
Many schools – across the spectrum in terms of academic
achievement – are not very good at teaching team work, leadership, public
speaking or other inter-personal skills; with the solitary task of exam passing
dominating the syllabus. Incorporating these skills into every day education
could be incredibly beneficial in terms of individuals’ confidence and self-esteem,
as well as provide them with skills which are vital in so many careers, but
often neglected in education.
Physical education, meanwhile, is in many, if not most
schools is seen as something additional to the body of your learning; you have
your time to run around and do sport, and then you have your time in the
classroom; and never the twain shall meet. But our health and our level of
physical activity affect the rest of our lives; our concentration and our
productivity as well as our mental health. Really good physical education as a
cornerstone of the curriculum has so much potential to improve pupils’
awareness of and relationship with their bodies and their health for the rest
of their lives.
And of course, discipline. The idea of “military style” discipline in schools
may make many recoil; but the stereotypical image of the barking army general is
unlikely to enter our classrooms. Panorama’s episode on soldiers turned
teachers (Classroom Warriors; you can watch it here and it’s defiantly
worth checking out when thinking about this issue) highlighted the impact
having ex-army officers in the classroom has had on discipline both in this
country and in the US; transforming discipline at schools which have had
problems with bad behaviour through techniques that ensure a sense of mutual
respect between student and teacher.
Linking the schools with the cadets could help the power
of schooling and education extend beyond the classroom. A problem that even the
best schools in deprived areas often face is that at the end of the day a child
goes back to their parents, and if those parents aren’t properly supporting
their child, a lot of the work done at school can be instantly undone.
Extending the reach a school can have in educating, encouraging and supporting
a child beyond the normal school day could greatly enhance the potential for
education to break cycles of deprivation.
This strategy has its risks; by mandating certain types
of extracurricular activities, the time a child has to explore their own
individual interests and passions would be limited. However, if this project
was effectively targeted (Twigg highlighted deprived areas as the focus of the
scheme), its pupils would be most likely be children who lack any kind of
extracurricular education or real encouragement and stimulation outside the
classroom; whether or not they end up pursuing a military career, being part of
the cadets would be more beneficial than simply having no outside interests at
all. None the less, perhaps the mandate for participation in the cadets could
be relaxed for pupils showing other ways that they are continuing their
development and education outside of school.
And there are other reasons to tread cautiously with this
idea. Although skills honed in the military are potentially transferable to the
teaching profession, former soldiers are not all going to be, without a doubt,
great teachers; encouraging soldiers into the teacher profession must not mean
they receive insufficient training.
Additionally, the schools must not be too specialised;
children must come out with the same broad education that will equip them to
have a variety of opportunities in life (of course this is compatible with some specialisation; many schools now
already specialise in one field or another while still providing a
One of the strongest reactions against this idea has
stemmed from the worry that these schools would be de facto recruitment grounds
for the army and the reserves. Reading the original ResPublica report on
military schools, you can understand this worry; the report advocates
increasing recruitment to the reserves as one of the key potential benefits of
military schools; and this is something to steer well clear of, simply because
no school where entrants are as young as eleven should be pushing those
children towards any specific career path. These schools, if they are to work,
must be about creating good people, not creating good soldiers.
But, in the best possible scenario, military schools have
the potential to create a more holistic education, where academic learning is
linked to physical within an ethos of hard work, self-worth, team work and
discipline. It might be argued that improved discipline, mandatory extra curricular
activities, an increased emphasis on physical education and inter-personal
skills; all these things can be delivered without the need for a link with the
military. On the other hand, the military already provides a structure, an
overarching concept, and people with the skills necessary to create this
educational structure; a structure that might not be for everyone, but placed
within the wider pool of educational choice, has the potential to benefit a lot
of children. Of course, like any policy; it would have to be done right; there
are a lot of potential pitfalls. But let’s explore this and really think about
it; not dismiss it out of hand, nor embrace it without question.