Our education campaigner looks at the MoD's assertion that the armed forces do not go into schools for recruitment purposes. This is based on a definition of 'recruitment' that limits it to 'signing up' there and then. We argue that the armed forces are indeed recruiting in schools and that 'recruitment' is a broader activity that involves interesting young people in the idea of enlisting by engaging in the range of activities from careers talks to visits to bases.
[T]he Armed Forces as a whole never visit schools for recruitment purposes and would only ever visit a school after being invited by a teacher to support school activities.
Response to FOI (accessed 05/02/2013)
This statement reflects the standard response by the Armed Forces to the work undertaken by ForcesWatch challenging whether the presence of the military is appropriate within the education system. Having met with this response in private communication, panel discussions and media outlets, ForcesWatch decided to lodge a complaint with the MoD. We believe these statements are, at best, a misrepresentation of military-led activities in schools; and at worst, a deliberate attempt to mislead the public over these activities. All the statements contain the same two claims that, firstly, that they do not visit for recruitment purposes; secondly, that they visit only upon invitation from a member of staff.
Let's deal with the second of these claims first – that the armed forces only visit a school or college when a teacher invites them. On first glance, this seems like a good and honest policy, after all, teachers should know what's best for their students and so if they decide to invite in the armed forces, then it can't be without good reason. In fact, this statement means nothing – no external visitor would ever visit a school without an invitation, or that would be trespassing. The key point to consider is the terms by which an invitation is gained. As somebody who spent a few years visiting schools to deliver what's known as Information, Advice and Guidance on Higher Education (IAG), an invitation to a school is gained by approaching them first offering what services you can.
The armed forces, like any organisation regularly visiting schools, normally has to approach them first. The aim is to build up a relationship with staff at the school and establish regular annual (or more frequent) visits. Of course, it does happen that some schools get in touch requesting services, but this occurs on a minority of occasions, as generally (with the exception of careers advisors whose job is to contact organisations like these) teachers are too busy to actively pursue external visitors. To corroborate this claim, ForcesWatch has evidence of the letters sent by the armed forces to local schools offering their services.
The first claim made in the MoD statement, however, is the more interesting: members of the Armed Forces never visit schools for recruitment purposes. For a full analysis of why we know this to be untrue, see our briefing on Military Activity in UK Schools here. Briefly, the evidence for our assertion that recruitment is at the heart of why the armed forces visit schools and colleges comes from the MoD itself; their Youth Engagement Review and various other internal MoD reports and documents are quite clear that the overarching rationale for engaging with young people is one of recruitment and the need to influence 'future opinion-formers'. ForcesWatch has also made multiple Freedom of Information requests, which all demonstrate that a significant proportion of armed forces' visits to schools include attending careers events, making presentations about their work (and having seen these presentations, they include detailed descriptions of the different careers available in the armed forces) and offering more general careers advice such as mock interviews and CV workshops. The army offer Insight interviews and the opportunity to attend an Insight course giving a taste of what life is like in the forces.
Following our complaint in which we outlined this well-documented evidence, the MoD responded with the following statement:
The Armed Forces do not 'recruit' in schools. No pupil or student is ever 'signed-up' or otherwise makes a commitment to become a recruit into the Armed Forces during the course of any school visit by our representatives
The MoD responses goes on to state that, 'in some cases, [visits include] explaining the wide range of careers available [in the Armed Forces]'. This is misleading as a majority of visits are for this purpose, exploring armed forces careers available to school leavers is a core motivation behind their activities in schools.
However, the main point to consider is the absurd distinction the MoD is making by claiming that recruitment is only the act of signing on the dotted line. It is interesting to note that the terminology in this carefully worded statement does not reflect that of the earlier FOI requests – instead of not visiting 'for recruitment purposes', it has been changed to not visiting 'to recruit' – as if activities that can directly lead to recruitment and the act of recruitment itself can be separated in such a way. When I worked in providing advice to school students about higher education options, I regularly attended the same events as the armed forces, hosting stalls and giving presentations alongside them at options evenings, careers fairs, CV workshops, etc. This activity was defined by the university I worked for (as it is at all universities attending these events) as 'student recruitment'. Other organisations present at these events besides the armed forces and universities often included large banks, management consultancies and major local employers. All of which would define this activity as recruitment but none of which would 'recruit' in the sense that students would sign a contract or have an interview there and then. I would argue that the armed forces might be the only organisation attending these events that makes this distinction and that it is being deliberately misleading in doing so.
It is interesting to consider why the MoD may want to make this distinction. Does it date back to 2007-8 when teaching unions were voting to bar the armed forces from entering schools? Few of the parents, students, teachers or governors we've spoken to are under any such delusions that the focus of the visits is not to interest young people to join the forces in the long run. For many, this is not an issue and they welcome it as an opportunity for their students, so why the need for secrecy and deception? Is it because they are concerned that running activities aimed at recruitment in schools which is considered by many others to be inappropriate within education?
We have now called for a review of their response to our complaint, which will, we hope, bring more information on the discrepancy between the MoD's own view of what the benefits of armed forces activities in schools and what it is prepared to admit in public.