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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.