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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.