Gove has been in the news, again. This time he hasn’t just annoyed teachers but historians (of all political persuasions), members of his own Coalition, Blackadder fans and, well, pretty much anyone with a relative who served in WW1. From a contemporary perspective, you could, if you wanted to be simplistic, boil the question down to these questions: What was the primary cause of WW1, militaristic nationalism across Europe (in part fuelled by a rush for oil and other resources), or aggressive imperial expansion by the Germans? Was it a just war?
The publicity around Gove’s crass statement has rather tainted the launch of the 1914 centenary year, and overshadowed announcements of plans to introduce a military ethos in all state schools, with £19 million to boost Cadet training and Troops to Teachers schemes. If it was a slow news week in August, without the historic storms, I’m sure we’d be hearing a lot more about this. Teachers are not at all happy at yet another blanket move dished out to schools without consultation, when they were promised increased freedom to teach as they know best. According to Richard Pring from Oxford University, “What is being created is the most personally centralised education system in western Europe since Germany in the 1930s – each school contracted directly to the secretary of state…” Gove refers to teachers as ‘the infantry’ and he casts himself as ‘Horatio on the bridge’. So, here we have a militarisation of the relationship between an Education leader and his troops, a rehabilitation of militarised nationalism in our History education, and a militarisation of the culture within schools.
Why does the Government think a military ethos is a good thing? Schools Minister, David Laws said in Parliament: “Military ethos is about improving educational attainment – and those things that support it such as good behaviour and attendance – through instilling positive qualities and values such as confidence, resilience, self-control, loyalty, agency, teamwork and problem solving.”
This begs a lot of questions. How well is this proven? Does military ethos actually motivate people to attend and focus, or just force and shame them to do so? Why can’t these qualities be instilled through other kinds of programmes? What effect will a military ethos have on children, especially those for whom it is not suitable? How will teachers deliver it when it is so different from the ethos in their training and methods? How widespread does Government want this military ethos to be and what will happen to schools that resist it entirely?
I spoke to a teacher, Alasdair Smith, who is involved in the Defend School History campaign. He believes it’s an absurdity to think of military discipline as good discipline. “It’s a fantasy. It’s not good in child terms. Yes it might work if you want to train soldiers to kill people in foreign lands. That discipline is all about subordination to command, whereas school discipline is about training for self-regulation. You build strategies from within the young person so that they can control own behaviour and motivation.” However, the DfE’s puff for the benefits of militarisation of education emphasises self-discipline and shaping their own futures.
My experience, in common with most teachers I know, tells me that young people thrive with a combination of challenge and comfort. Good teachers know when and how to praise, and how to suggest improvements. As Alasdair confirmed, there is a strong evidence base for the success of strategies that combine clear sanctions with positive praise and pastoral care. The defenders of military ethos might argue that this is no different from what military training brings. But why bring it then? What is special about it? Why not acknowledge that this is what teachers are all doing well? One answer would seem to be in the false interpretations of international educational standards, the obsession with this small country maintaining top ranking in the ‘global race’, and a wish to shake up education into chaos to see what falls out. Teachers are then understandably hostile to this move because it sits in this context of a frantic but flawed attempt at reform. It also implies that they are bad at discipline, without understanding the difficulties they face, with growing social inequalities, austerity cuts and imposed reforms. They have also seen over and over again, the difficulties faced by teachers coming in from backgrounds in police, military or other forces when they expect their more authoritarian strategies to work in schools. Sometimes children may be questioning, wily and creative, sometimes very damaged and needing care, and mainly needing inspiration and support more than they need control.
There may also be very pragmatic answers to this push towards military involvement in schools. There are large-scale redundancies planned, so there are suggestions that Troops to Teachers is intending to provide alternative careers for them (although it’s likely it would only benefit officers). At the same time, we’re seeing the third recruitment drive in a year for young people to join up, as there are concerns about a capability gap, especially in the Army. Military strategists acknowledge that climate disruption and environmental depletion are increasing worldwide conflict, so this capability must be maintained. Forces Watch say that the MoD is funding the expansion of Cadet forces in schools as a direct aid to recruitment.
Outside of the teaching profession, there are mixed views about this move. Some argue that we need forces, that British forces are appreciated where they serve. My argument, as a pacifist, is that the severity of the climate crisis necessitates a transformation of military force into an internationalist peacekeeping force, supporting foreign aid, diplomacy and the building of resilient infrastructure. Others argue that military-style adventure and discipline provides enormous benefits for certain young people, especially the most disadvantaged. My view is that all the benefits of adventurous and challenging activity could be better gained through a rich combination of arts activity, ecological and outdoor experiences, and active citizenship work. The most disadvantaged young people include the most vulnerable young people and it concerns me that they may be categorised as problems, that need control and can easily be recruited into a subordinant role, when what they most need is care and freedom of opportunity. As Alasdair said, “It tells you what they expect from working class kids, that they can forget creativity, forget thinking for yourself, that they should get into a uniform and serve their country without question”.