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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era