Tuesday, 31 July 2012

On military schools.

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 comprehensive education).

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.

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