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.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.