Things have really moved on since ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland lodged a petition earlier this year with the backing of over a thousand signatures at the Scottish Parliament concerning military visits to state schools.
Back in March we asked Holyrood to ensure ‘guidance is provided to schools', ‘information is collected to provide public monitoring’ and ‘parents/guardians are consulted’ when it comes to visits by the military.
This reflected the work done with the Welsh Assembly in 2015 when Assembly Members in Cardiff agreed to support, in principle, greater oversight, guidance and balance in relation to how the armed forces operate in secondary schools. This decision was made in recognition of the unique nature of an armed forces career.
Last week we got the chance to put our case to the Public Petitions Committee in Edinburgh. We answered questions on how visits to schools is part of the armed forces long-term recruitment process, about the level and distribution of visits, and the lack of clarity and coordination between institutions and authorities responsible for education and careers as to how, and even if, the visits should be overseen and parents consulted.
We raised concerns about the role of Capita, the private company that holds the army recruitment contract, in visits to schools. Part of the remit of their Outreach teams is to 'promote Army Careers by going to schools'. We hope that an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament would shed light on what they actually do.
We were delighted that the five members of the Committee agreed that there now needs to be further examination of the issue.
During the hearing, the Committee asked us what the chances of the armed forces presenting a balanced view, and we replied that currently we do not believe they do at all, and that school staff or other organisations might be best placed to offer alternative perspectives.
When the Committee suggested that the armed forces might be offering balance by discussing peacekeeping work through the UN, we were able to point out that militarised peacekeeping is not the only response to conflict that children might learn. To provide real balance, they should also be educated about nonviolent responses such as peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
We also shared with the Committee our concern that the realities of violent conflict and combat situations are hidden beneath marketing strategies aimed at pulling in young people, such as a focus on skills development and fun outdoors activities.
Committee Convenor, Johan Lamont MSP, said after hearing our evidence, that petition (PE01603) should be taken forward because Members needed to “get a sense of where people are on this and that dilemma between on the one hand particular communities being targeted but also recognising that for some young people there’s potentially some good recruitment outcomes.”
The Convenor also made the point that young people should perhaps have the right to opt out of activities with the armed forces in their schools themselves, a point which we agreed with.
The Committee, made up of two SNP, two Conservative and one Labour Member, agreed they would now contact a number of public bodies asking for current advice, information and guidelines on military visits to schools. These include the Scottish Government, local authorities, the Armed Forces Careers Office, Skills Development Scotland, the Association of Heads and Deputies in Scotland, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Youth Parliament.
The Scottish media took up the story with gusto. Our appearance in Edinburgh was featured in two national newspapers and online, with major broadcasters weighing in too.