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13 July 2012

Why the left should give military schools a chance

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

By David Lammy

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.  

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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.