The terms ‘Military Academies’ and ‘Military Free Schools’ have been bandied about since at least January 2012, but there is a lack of clarity as to what they actually mean. This article explains what military academies / free schools are (as well as what they could be), and explores the concerns that they raise: the lack of evidence that they will raise attainment; that they can employ unqualified teachers; their limited accountability to the local community (both during and after the consultation process); and the fact that they can set their own curriculum. All of these are heightened by the fact that there are various agendas behind military academies and free schools, including providing employment for the growing number of veterans, and encouraging pupils to join the armed forces after they leave school. There is also unease about what military-style discipline would look like in a school environment. Are military activities and military approaches appropriate within mainstream secondary education, and are they in the best interests of young people and – in the longer-term – society as a whole?
What exactly are military academies and free schools?
The term ‘military academy’ might conjure up the image of an exclusively military school whose students will join the armed forces when they finish their studies. There is already one such institution in the UK: Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College in Loughborough, whose pupils are expected to become engineersand technical officers in the armed forces or the Ministry of Defence civil service. Similarly, the Military Preparation Colleges in Cardiff and Bristol, run by ex-forces staff, offer various military training courses to help 16-18 year-olds ‘pass selection’. There is also a Military and Public Services Academy at Bicton College in Devon and ‘Military Academy’ run as part of Accrington & Rossendale College in Lancashire, which prepare post-GCSE students for a career in the armed forces through a BTEC in Uniformed Services – a course consisting largely of outdoor activities, whose students wear military uniform. However, ‘military academies and free schools’ here refer to the initiative the Department for Education announced it was interested in “exploring” in November 2012: “academies and Free Schools…[that] use their freedoms to foster a military ethos and raise standards”. It invited applications from schools that want to become military academies, and groups that want to set up a military free school. The proposal is part of the DfE’s Military Ethos in Schools programme, which comprises other initiatives already being rolled out in English state schools: ‘alternative provision with a military ethos’, the expansion of the Combined Cadet Force, Troops to Teachers, and a cadet version of National Citizen Service.
The DfE state that “There are a variety of ways in which a [free or academy] schoolcan foster a military ethos including: bringing Armed Service leavers in as teachers or mentors through Troops to Teachers; opening a cadet unit within a school; or using the [alternative] provision of groups like SkillForce and Challenger Troop”. They say that there is no need for “a new classification of ‘Military Academy’”, but rather that they envisage academies and/or free schools taking on a ‘military ethos’ by adopting one or more elements of the Military Ethos in Schools programme. However, they admit that “There is no clear definition of what an academy with a military ethos is”, and as other proponents of military academies and free schools have different visions of what they are/should be, it is useful to track the origins of the idea, and look at some examples.
History of the idea
The DfE cite the think-tank ResPublica’s January 2012 paper Military Academies: Tackling disadvantage, improving ethos and changing outcome as their source of inspiration in formulating the military academies / free schools aspect of their Military Ethos in Schools policy. The paper, written by ResPublica director Phillip Blondand the researcher Patricia Kaszynska, describes a Military Academy as a converted academy or a new free school where the military’s involvement is “systematised” – a “comprehensive” response to the perceived problems of poor discipline and attainment, as opposed to just “boot camps” for expelled pupils (which is, ironically, the sort of thing currently being implemented through the alternative provision with a military ethos schemes). The teaching staff, including mentors, would all be current, former, or prospective military personnel:members of the Reserves or civilians who have ‘an intention of joining the Reserves’, students in University Service Units (the university, officer-level equivalent of the cadets), and ex-military personnel; they would target ‘accomplished military leaders’ to be the head teachers. The curriculums would have a vocational emphasis, utilising “technical and specialist knowledge acumen already existing in the Armed Forces…Without compromising the academic rigour in the core subjects”, and with extended school days for sport and other extra-curricular activities that would be open to children from other schools. The academies would also attempt to “facilitate pathways into future jobs for their students through a range of apprenticeship schemes delivered in partnership with Defence and other manufacturing firms.” Lastly, the report echoes the Schools Commissioner Elizabeth Sidwell’s assertion that every school should have a Combined Cadet Force (CCF); the proposed pilot scheme would involve setting up a military academy/free school in each of the ten regions in England and Wales with a Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association, which would sponsor them.
The DfE concluded that the ResPublica report’s proposals were ‘attractive’ but ‘ignored the need to set high academic aspirations, and in particular to provide English and maths teaching as part of a broad and balanced curriculum’. They noted that it would not be possible for all staff in a converted academy to be ex-military, ‘as existing staff have employment rights which would be too costly to “buy out”’, though it would be possible in a new free school, which can be set up by parents, teachers, and others. (It is worth noting that ResPublica actually propose a mixture of former, current, and prospective military staff, which could in theory work in a converted academy if the existing staff were any of these). In addition, the DfE are far more keen on the expansion of the CCF, seen with then-Minister for Schools Nick Gibb saying in March 2012 that ministers had read the ResPublica report “with interest…I welcome the role the military and cadet forces can play in engaging young people”, adding that the DfE was “considering the ideas [that the report] set out”, and David Cameron said that he would “look very carefully” at it, asserting that “we should empower our cadet forces to expand”).
In July 2012, Labour responded to the coalition’s military academies proposal: the former shadow Education secretary Stephen Twigg and the former shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy published a manifesto on the ‘Service Ethos’, stating that they were ‘examining the case for establishing a number of “Service Schools” where parents and communities want them.’ Like the DfE, they talk of ex-forces teachers and mentors, and the CCF (though it is unclear whether they envisaged Service Schools having all of these elements, or just one of them), but unlike the DfE they also explicitly acknowledge that the nature of academies means that they have the freedom to have military-oriented ‘subject specialisms’ and be sponsored by the armed forces, the Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations, and ‘service charities’.They don’t preclude the possibility of free schools entirely staffed by former military personnel, or academies staffed by a mixture of ex-, current, and prospective military personnel. However, the Service Ethos proposal has received little attention within the Labour Party, and it remains to be seen whether the new Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt will make Service Schools part of his 2015 election manifesto.
Whilst there are not yet any schools that call themselves a military academy or free school with explicit reference to the Military Ethos in Skills programme, the ResPublica report, or the Service Ethos manifesto, there are ‘many’ academies (according to the DfE) which have incorporated elements of these visions. The DfE state that they, “do not hold information on how many there are”, nor on how they have adopted a military ethos. They can currently only exist in England, as the devolved regions do not (yet) have academies or free schools. Here are the ones that we have identified:
- The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Kent states on its website that “since becoming an Academy in 2010, we have retained our very precious military ethos, in order to serve children from military families, and to also open our doors to children who do not have that background, but who want to buy into our very special and magical ingredient: a military-led education.” The Duke of York’s Royal Military School is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), all pupils in years 9 – 12 have to be in the CCF, and their piloting of a BTEC in Military Music points to a possible proliferation of military-oriented vocational courses. What is distinctive about the school is that a large number of its pupils come from military families, and it used to be a private school. In contrast, the DfE and Respublica envisage most military academies and free schools to be in areas of perceived low discipline and attainment.
- The Phoenix Free School, due to open in Oldham this September but which had its funding withdrawn by the DfE in March because it failed to meet their “rigorous criteria”, was to be “the first school in Britain where all teachers are armed forces veterans.” It would have had “the Army’s core values of Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment” at its heart.However, the organisers repeatedly stressed that it would not be a ‘military academy’ or ‘military school’: “there will be no Combined Cadet Force…unless enough parents and pupils want one…You will not see any military uniforms or hear any shouting, the playground will not become a parade square”. The school’s founder Tom Burkard (who pioneered the import of the Troops to Teachers scheme from the US) admits that “if you were to suggest to Asian parents or anyone else, that their children were going to be put in British Army uniform and be marching around the parade square, they would be very rightly upset”. This is similar to the ResPublica report’s authors’ denial that military academies would represent the “militarisation of our schoolchildren” or “an increase in disciplinarian education”, acknowledging that these would be cause for “legitimate reservations”. The Phoenix School’s prospective head teacher Captain AffanBurki asserted that “we will not be a recruiting ground for the Armed Forces.” The group developing the Phoenix School said that a main reason for the DfE funding being withdrawn was that they had “struggled to find suitably qualified ex-army staff’, including a head teacher (it seems that Burki was recently demoted to ‘project leader’); Burkard was reported earlier as saying that he did not “expect similar schools to sweep the nation” for this same reason. However, whilst it is true that the Troops to Teachers programme only had 322 applications between March 2011 and April 2013, of which just 132 were accepted, free schools and academies can hire unqualified teachers. This suggests a lack of potential staff with military associations, qualified or not, who are able and willing to teach,
- Various other Academies have a less comprehensive, but nonetheless significant, military element. Lordswood Boys School in Birmingham, which became an Academy in 2013, was featured in a February 2011 Panorama episode on Troops to Teachers entitled ‘Classroom Warriors’: one in twelve of its staff are ex-military; they wear military uniform and help run the school’s very active CCF. Other Academies with a CCF, most if not all of which have been set up through the Military Ethos in Schools programme’s £10.8 million expansion of the CCF in state schools, include: Merchants’ Academy Bristol; City of London Academy Islington; Havelock Academy in Grimsby; Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough; Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow; Bedford Academy; Sandbach School in Cheshire; Writhlington School in Somerset; Bourne Academy in Lincolnshire; St Matthew Academy in London; and Queen Mary’s Grammar School in Walsall.
- A similar, but slightly different, model is South Wiltshire University Technical College, which receives sponsorship from the Army and several arms companies in recognition of its military-oriented Science and Engineering courses; “43 (Wessex) Brigade will be supporting the UTC by providing access to specialist training skills and equipment, leading on team-building and leadership skills and supporting a cadet force”. The ResPublica report itself states that the Military Academies it proposes would be similar to UTCs.
The signs that numerous converted academies have, or are adopting, a military element, suggests that an exploration of the concerns around military academies and free schools policy – many of which apply to the Military Ethos in Schools programme more broadly – is very much needed.
Who do military academies / free schools really benefit?
While the DfE, Labour, and ResPublica all assert that they will develop pupils’ self-discipline and aspirations, thus improving attainment, Labour and ResPublica are clear that they would also provide veterans and serving reservists with jobs – particularly important at this time of restructuring in the armed forces, with tens of thousands of regulars being made redundant at the same time as a major drive to recruit thousands more reservists (although only ResPublica seem to envisage this as a two-way process where prospective teachers commit to joining the Reserves if they haven’t already). The Labour policy paper stresses that “This is not about recruitment to the Armed Forces”, presumably with reference to pupils. In contrast, Tom Burkard’s 2008 paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, Troops to Teachers: A successful programme from America for our inner city schools (which was another of the DfE’s main sources for formulating the Military Ethos in Schools policy), states that having former soldiers teaching in schools “could also relieve the chronic recruiting problems faced by our armed forces…Knowing (and probably respecting) someone who has had a successful military career would ease some of the difficulties faced by the armed forces in finding suitable recruits.’”
Gove has stressed that “I don’t want to see our schools turned into training grounds for the next generation of soldiers”, and in a note written for him as part of the Military Ethos in Schools policy formation he was assured that “Cadets are not part of the armed forces and are not used for recruiting purposes.” However, whilst the former reassurance is true, the latter is not, as the MoD have themselves acknowledged: “Cadet units are beneficial to both society and for recruitment into the Armed Forces, that is why we want to increase the number of them.” The MoD, who indirectly support Military Academies and Free Schools – by, for example, providing £2.5 million of the £10.85 million for 100 new CCF units – state in their 2011 Youth Engagement Review that the two main outcomes of their youth engagement, which they describe as centering on the cadets, are defence ones: “An awareness of the Armed Forces’ role in the world and the quality of its work and people, in order to ensure the continued support of the population; and recruitment of the young men and women that are key to future sustainment and success.” (original bold) ‘[P]ersonal and social development’ are very much secondary benefits. This evidence of a significant recruitment incentive in initiatives targeted at schools in more disadvantaged communities is very concerning, given that the youngest, most disadvantaged recruits are significantly more likely to be killed or develop long-term mental health problems, amongst other negative experiences.
Questionable evidence and ideological assumptions
The research on which the DfE based the Military Ethos in Schools policy is worryingly limited: of the nine main sources, none are peer-reviewed, several were written or funded by people strongly in favour of more military influence in education (such as the Council for Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations), and four are from – or based primarily on – the US, where the military’s involvement in education is far greater than in the UK. ResPublica were accused in 2012 by one of their main funders – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – of missed deadlines, and poor quality reports “not suitable for publication…poorly thought through…vague”.
The proponents of the military academies and free schools policy all suggest that there is a crisis of discipline and attainment in some schools: the ResPublica and two Centre for Policy Studies reports, two of which were publishes shortly after the 2011 riots, talk of “the problems of the inner city” (“areas of high unemployment and deprivation”) and “failing” and “difficult inner-city schools” with “high levels of violence”.
Is there really such a crisis of discipline?Tony Harrison, vice-president of Oldham’s National Union of Teachers (NUT) branch, stated with regard to the Phoenix School proposal that “In our experience with parents in Oldham, they have not been unhappy with the level of discipline in schools.” Chris Keates, General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said that the ResPublica report “is based on a cynical misuse and misrepresentation of the causes of the  riots…Like many of those in Government, ResPublica appears to have no understanding of the complex and deep-rooted causes of poverty and the issues which led to the riots. ResPublica’s proposals amount to nothing more than a crude simulation of army life through, what is in effect, national service for the poor.”
There is also no evidence that ex-military people and military approaches can improve discipline and attainment better than other professional groups, given the same funding and support. (Retired) General Lamb’s claim in his forword to the ResPublica report, that opponents to Military Academies have no alternative response to “the current slide towards social exclusion”, is simply unfounded. The experience and good practice of schools and youth groups up and down the country attests to the numerous other ways of promoting positive values and skills. Indeed, ResPublica themselves acknowledge that military-staffed and influenced schools are not the only solution, and likewise Gove admitted that “These qualities are of course not exclusive to the military. In the UK we have a strong tradition of youth uniformed organisations, such as the Girlguiding UK and the Scout Association, or St John’s ambulance and the Boys and Girls Brigades, who have an excellent track record of developing young people from a variety of backgrounds.” Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, made a similar point in June 2013. ResPublica also assert that ex-military mentors have a higher chance of being from the “same culture and context” as “the sort of disengaged young people who were over-represented in those taking part in the 2011 riots”, which would be “conducive to the development of camaraderie and mutual trust between students and their mentors” (a point that impressed the DfE, who noted that such mentors “are more likely to be male and/or from minority ethnic backgrounds”). However, the DfE stress that targeting military leaders to be the head teachers would only be acceptable if they had “the skill sets required of a successful leader of education, as success is not automatically transferable”.
What would discipline look like?
Proponents of military academies and free schools claim that critical responses to the Troops to Teachers scheme from the National Union of Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, and others – which see ‘military discipline’ as being different to the sort of discipline appropriate in schools – are based on outdated ideas of military discipline. For example, the Phoenix School stated that their approach would be one of mutual respect which Burkard claimed would be easier because his teachers would probably be former Non-Commissioned Officers, from a similar socio-economic background to the pupils, as opposed to the “almost invariable middle-class background” of current teachers. The school would rely on “good teaching” not “overly harsh discipline”: they would have a zero-tolerance policy for rule-breaking, but punishments would be fair, never humiliating. Pupils from Lordswood Boys School in Birmingham interviewed for the Panorama episode described how their ex-military teachers lowered, rather than raised their voices, to stop bad behaviour, though their eyes were “scary”. ResPublica seem to want to eschew the word ‘discipline’ altogether because of its “authoritarian” connotations, focusing instead on “an ethos of ‘reciprocity, hard-work and no shortcuts’ that fosters true internal discipline”. They also claim that staff with military experience are likely to be more resilient and deal better with ill-discipline in the classroom, though they don’t expand on this.
However, Burkard claims in his 2008 report that, ‘Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power’. As the academic Jonathan Gilmore observes, sounds ‘suspiciously like “all they understand is force”’. Gilmore notes very negative examples of military discipline, such as ‘beastings’, which would clearly be unacceptable in schools. Yet, his point that “Military training and discipline cannot be disconnected from its role in preparing individuals for obedience to the chain of command, unquestioning acceptance of orders and, ultimately, conditioning them to overcome the moral prohibition on killing other human beings” is important. Can the approach to discipline taken by current or former armed forces staff in military academies / free schools be effective outside of the context of the military’s chain of command and the unique restrictions of Military Law? What would staff do if quiet, stern discipline and zero tolerance fails? The Phoenix School organisers stated quite openly that if they couldn’t deal with pupils, they would exclude them, which would be a failure, but there are simultaneous fears that staff might turn to physical intimidation and force, which – according to anecdotal evidence – has happened in at least a couple of cases. The DfE’s April 2011 guidance to schools on behaviour and discipline included sections on using “reasonable force”, conducting searches, and so on. These fears are connected to concerns about safeguarding in the Combined Cadet Forces in schools, including how the chain of command structure deals with disciplinary incidents, and that adult volunteers removed from their position because of risk of harm to children are not mandatorily being referred to the Disclosure and Barring Service.
In additions, there is an informal culture in the cadets that tolerates a lack of respect for the individual: in one case senior cadets were allowed to call younger cadets ‘scumbag’. All this is surely inconsistent with other values that schools seek to promote.
Would attainment really be better?
Many schools have hugely improved their attainment without recourse to the military. However, the DfE assert that military academies and free schools would “raise standards”, and they present the Military Ethos in Schools programme generally as a way to enable pupils “to achieve an excellent education which will help them shape their own futures.” Similarly, ResPublica imply that having the CCF and veterans organisations in schools could help pupils reach academic excellence. However, for various reasons military academies and free schools do not look set to provide this excellence.
Firstly, they can employ teachers who are under-qualified, such as the graduates and non-graduates fast-tracked through the Troops to Teachers scheme, who spend four days a week in school and only one day a week in university (schools receive £2000 for hiring these candidates). Though Labour and ResPublica envisage all teachers being “qualified” (indeed the current Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt is strongly opposed to unqualified teachers), the Phoenix School would not have demanded this, though it would have required teachers to have a degree in the subject they taught. A recent evaluation of one of the ‘alternative provision with a military ethos’ projects, SkillForce, notes the need for staff to have “accreditation”, as well as “an understanding of the needs of students with learning difficulties and how best to teach them in the classroom”. The Troops to Teachers website states to candidates that “Experience can include formal roles either as a trainer/instructor or applying the subject you wish to teach…Don’t forget that to teach at secondary level, you need be able to demonstrate relevant subject knowledge.” The low numbers accepted so far, mentioned above, suggests that the standards of those applying are not high enough.
Esther Dermott, in her analysis of the Troops to Teachers policy states: “what is noticeably absent from this solution is the activity of teaching;instead these teachers [with a ‘similar background’ and ‘physical strength’] simply offer an example for children to follow”, claiming that advocates of Troops to Teachers have argued that “a lack of education educational qualifications may actually be an advantage…[the teachers] could focus specifically on teaching basic literacy and numeracy, i.e. presumably because of a lack of higher level subject knowledge, recruits could concentrate on basic skills.” This goes against Gove’s claim in 2010 that he wanted to make schools “engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined”, and the DfE’s conclusion that the ResPublica report “ignored the need to set high academic aspirations”. The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover, which Labour’s Service Ethos policy proposal cites as a success story, is not a struggling school: none of its students received free school meals, and none had special educational needs – as opposed to the national averages of 15.9% and 8.5% respectively.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, emphasised that her union’s members and the vast majority of parents believe that teaching “must remain a graduate profession”. Indeed, the DfE itself stated in 2010 that “The best education systems in the world draw their teachers from among the top graduates”, and Gove has said that he wants teaching to be a Masters profession. On a practical level, encouraging reservists into teaching and teachers into the Reserves could cause major disruptions to learning if the UK were to take part in another war involving a large-scale deployment of reservists. Similarly, schools are being encouraged to ‘make allowances’ for teachers who volunteer in CCF units.
Lack of consultation with and accountability to local communities
The concerns around consultation and accountability regarding academies and free schools are particularly acute given the wider defence benefits of military academies and free schools. In theory, ResPublica state that “local communities should be informed about and consulted on the plan at an early stage in order to enhance the legitimacy of the military academies and shape them according to the needs of their local communities”, Labour propose ‘Service Schools’ in areas where communities want them, and the Phoenix School would only have set up a CCF if “enough parents and pupils want[ed] one”. Yet many academies and free schools have been set up against the majority will in the local area; indeed, the Phoenix School received considerable local opposition. (http://www.oldham-chronicle.co.uk/news-features/8/news-headlines/84862/plug-pulled-on-military-school) At the same time, military academies and free schools would be likely to be subject to external influence through sponsorship from the armed forces and private defence companies; the DfE state that regarding new CCF units, “academies with sponsors” are among the priority group of schools.
Poor use of public funds
The National Audit Office found that 81% of secondary free schools had been set up in areas with surplus places – this was a main reason for local opposition to the Phoenix School, as there are around 1100 surplus secondary school place in Oldham. The NUT calculate that the school ‘received at least £180,000 of taxpayers’ funding before the plug was finally pulled’. The fact that the DfE left it this late indicates their desperation for the school to be realised. Troops to Teachers has cost up to £10 million yet only 132 teachers between March 2011 and April 2013 (that’s £75,000 per teacher). CCF units are also expensive: a new one of 120 pupilscosts a school or its armed forces sponsor around £60,000 per year. According to the Army Cadet Force: “[M]any schools struggle to afford” one, and those they do presumably take funding from elsewhere in their budget or from military-related sponsors.
Military academies as part of militarisation in everyday life in the UK
DfE policy makers’ turning to a ‘military ethos’ to address perceived problems in schools is part of a wider recourse to military solutions to social problems in recent years that has seen a far greater visibility and influence of the military and military approaches in spheres other than education, such as in local communities. This process of ‘militarisation’ is not an accident: the MoD’s 2008 Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of the Armed Forces recommended forty ways to improve public encounter with and support for the armed forces, such as holding an annual Armed Forces Day, encouraging school pupils to join a community cadet unit or setting up a CCF. These, and most of the other recommendations, have since been implemented, many under the Armed Forces Covenant, which “recognises that the whole nation, has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families, and it establishes how they should expect to be treated”. At the local level, Armed Forces Community Covenants “encourage local communities to support the armed forces community in their area”, and have been signed by all but a handful of local authorities. As at February 2014, 112 businesses had signed an Armed Forces Corporate Covenant.
Other examples of militarisation in the UK include a new approach to engaging the public about the work of the armed forces, the two major deployments of the armed forces in civilian roles during the 2012 Olympics and the flooding in early 2014, and the opening of Army recruitment ‘clinics’ in Job Centres.
If a particular ethos is to be promoted in schools, shouldn’t it be one based on citizenship and equality, rather than militarism? The academics Jamie Stanfield and Hilary Cremin critique Troops to Teachers eloquently: “The prestige of the Ex-Soldier, legitimated by their position in school, is dependent upon a universal acceptance of military service in general and the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in practice…The Ex-Soldier, whose reified symbolic capital has been built obeying hierarchical orders rather than questioning their validity, represents the exclusion of debates about structural inequality from education: the practices that Ex-Soldiers bring into education include not blaming social or economic factors when a pupil fails to meet a learning objective”.
This “hidden curriculum” in the relationship between pupil and teacher created by this “restricting [of] the range and habitus of the ‘ideal’ teacher”, can, as Stanfield and Cremin assert, have “manifest effects on pupil’s development.” All this could be said of the Military Ethos in Schools programme – and thus military academies and free schools – more generally. When we also consider the lack of clarity as to who they really benefit, and the growing trend of forced conversion to academy status, there is a lot to be concerned about.
Owen Everett, Education Campaign Worker, ForcesWatch