Why the left should give military schools a chance

The armed forces already play a hugely positive role in our schools.

The government’s academy programme has had its fair share of critics. Many on the left have criticised the involvement of for-profit companies in the education system, particularly where those companies are being imposed on schools against the will of parents, teachers and governors. But what I cannot fathom is why, when the shadow education secretary promises to involve one of our most respected public sector institutions in the education system, the liberal-left run for the hills.

It seems to have been generally accepted in some circles that servicemen and women are “brainwashed”, “killers”, and hell-bent on converting our sons and daughters to violence. Stephen Twigg, in their eyes, is about to let the squaddies loose on their innocent children. It is nonsense – and offensive nonsense at that.

The “service schools” idea is still just that: an idea. Of course we need to hear how they will sit alongside other schools, how many there will be and how much of military life they will actually mimic.  But as yet there is nothing for people to shout “betrayal” at. In fact, there is plenty the Labour Party should be welcoming.

The military already play a hugely positive role in our schools. The Combined Cadet Force and Army Cadet Force are fantastic national institutions. These are organisations which offer adventure training, flying, sailing, white water rafting, and navigating Britain’s finest landscapes from Cornwall to the Cairngorms, all for free. Young people learn about hard graft, develop leadership skills and learn the importance of working in a team for a common goal. No one is coerced to join; every cadet has chosen to be there. Stating an ambition - as Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy did - to make those activities available beyond the playing fields of Eton should be meat and drink for the left. It is not the beginnings of a reservist child army.

Parts of the liberal-left seem to be at their happiest when bemoaning the success of the polished, confident and articulate products of private education, whilst simultaneously blocking opportunities for poorer children to access the activities that foster those attributes.  

If those same sceptics cared about improving the life chances of the children of the urban poor, they’d know the importance of building resilience. Considering the pressures of urban life, the slow creep of a culture of instant gratification, where respect can be won by the glint of a knife and where self esteem can purchased (or looted) at your local Foot Locker, why should we deprive teenagers of an institution that might make them value something different?

Any sensible analysis of the riots and current thinking about behavioural economics points to the importance of human capital and character, so why shouldn’t armed forces personnel be involved in their cultivation? Our armed forces are, after all, resilience personified. The vigour and discipline of forces life is renowned, but important too is the access to role models.  Alongside those who serve as on the front line are engineers, electricians, linguists, communications experts, trainers, medics and electricians as well.

If we don’t believe they are worthy of contact with our young, what does that say about us? Do we really believe the men and women we send into danger are good for that purpose alone? That their skills and values can add nothing to our existence? That experienced soldiers, who will have spent much of their careers teaching their younger contemporaries, are incapable of making the transfer to the classroom?

Once the details have been worked through there will be a proper debate to be had about the role and value of service schools. Of course no one wants the modern equivalent of the borstal. But that is not what is being proposed. The reaction to the proposals has revealed an underlying attitude to the military that is deeply unhealthy. Our children deserve better than that – and so do our armed forces.

Cadets take part in the 148th Sovereign's Parade held. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.