Military schools are a terrible idea. Discipline is no substitute for education

As the recipient of a military education, Willard Foxton is well placed to say why Labour's latest policy is a bad idea.

One of the biggest questions in Britain today is what to do to reform the education system. Many people agree with what Lord Skidelsky recently said in an interview with the Guardian, that "politicians have 'f**ked up' our schools at some point in the last twenty years".

So what's the solution to our education system's problems? 

Well, I can say wholeheartedly that it is not military schools. I mean, if you were blindly asked the question "which party, only weeks after an ill-recieved speech about the evils of 'mass immigration', will call for the introduction of military discipline into schools?", I'm guessing the bulk of people would guess the BNP. It's such a ludicrous policy I can barely even believe I'm writing this rebuttal of it. I mean, public services aren't just a Mr Benn style game of dress up. What's next? Firemen as social workers? Ballerinas to run the NHS?

But, yet here we are. There is a certain simplistic charm to the idea that the military can "whip 'em into shape". Indeed, it calls to mind an aging Colonel I once met at a party, who on describing the appalling standard of literacy and numeracy in recruits said "we have to give them a comprehensive education... to make up for their comprehensive education". Sadly, that's not the reality of military education when it's taken outside of the forces. Frequently, the spit and polish, square-bashing aspects of discipline are pushed to the fore, rather than the camaraderie that characterises real military life. 

It all comes down to what is at stake. Recruits are volunteers, and have the knowledge that obeying orders - getting fit, becoming part of the unit, reacting to orders at a moment's notice - could save their life one day, and is a vital part of the profession they aspire to become part of. They have a history to look up to - they are becoming part of something grand that existed before them, and will still be there once they have moved on.

Children have none of these things. What is inspiring for an 18-year-old on a parade ground is pathetic coming from your geography teacher when you've spilled some paint while colouring in Paraguay. One of the most problematic aspects of this is that these schools are being touted as a solution to discipline problems and low aspirations. Most of the ex-military teachers I've spoken to - I have several friends who are ex-forces in the teaching profession - have squirmed at the idea that Hollywood-style military discipline is the answer.

Several of these people teach at some of the toughest schools in London; they were unaninmous in telling me that to rely on military status and military techniques to win respect simply wouldn't work. "Behaviour management in the teaching is different - it isn't about shouting", said one. "What works in a barracks would just escalate most classroom situations". There's also a real question about what being in a military environment does to you as a person. Unquestionably, it regiments and conditions you - to an extent, that's the point. I'm not sure that's a good thing - I wonder whether military discipline can coexist with vital skills we need to teach our children - most notably, critical thinking.

Often, people leave the military with little capability to survive outside of the institutional mindset. That's part of why the rate of homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse amongst ex-forces personnel is so high. Of course, there are a huge mosaic of complex factors which create that picture - notably the experience of combat and being trained to kill - but the divorce from reality you get from being a cog in a well-oiled machine is part of the picture. Even assuming that military schools do work - and there is some evidence that, under the hype, what is actually being proposed is more sophisticated techniques than Sharpe-esque "Five rounds a minute" drill - the targeting of these schools at deprived areas is one of the aspects that worries me most. 

What will that do to society? Military schools have to cut some things from the curriculum to make room for all the polish and saluting. Quite aside from the cognitive dissonance this produces when the GCSE curriculum requires you to read poems about how war is terrible in the morning, and then requires you to love guns and flags in the afternoon - mine cut drama and arts to make space. What message do we send to our poorest kids if they go to boot camps, while middle class kids get poetry and painting and plays? It's also worth bearing in mind that the uniformed British state - in its various guises as the military "invading Iraq" or "the Feds" patrolling the streets of London - is hardly popular in exactly the communities this is supposed to serve.

This policy has emerged out of a political bind - Labour dislikes the idea of Free Schools, but they are popular. They feel they need an eye-catching education policy to compete. While this policy certainly is "eye-catching" (read: mental), the only people who seem to like the policy are my most hard-right Tory friends. Which probably suggests this one should be politely shelved by the Labour party.

Military education: an RAF school in the 1950s. Photo: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser