Action taken to resolve issues of concern before submitting the petition
Our research has revealed that there is considerable concern in Scotland among teachers, students, parents/guardians, and others regarding the nature of armed forces visits to schools. However, we have also found that various other important stakeholder organisations are unaware of the concerns about of the visits, or who is responsible for overseeing them. This indicates a real need for a thorough investigation into the situation.
We have raised our concerns with Scottish education authorities at government and local level, and with other education bodies and various MSPs. The responses from the Scottish Government and local authorities show there is a lack of clarity regarding the nature of armed forces visits to schools, and who is responsible for overseeing them, which makes it impossible for our concerns to be addressed. Our correspondence with MSPs from a variety of parties, and with the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, and the National Union of Students Scotland, revealed substantial concern on the issues. One MSP, and the first two bodies, have publically stated their concerns, but the Scottish Government and local authorities have not acted on them.
Identifying existing concern
Research by ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland identified the following existing concern about armed forces visits to schools in Scotland:
* The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) – Scotland’s largest teachers’ union - passed a motion in 2007 calling for a ban on armed forces ‘recruitment campaigns’ in schools and colleges in Scotland. Then-general secretary Ronnie Smith said, "We will ask our members to pick up the issue with each local education authority and try to persuade them to adopt our proposition". In 2013, EIS requested data on armed forces visits to schools and colleges from its Local Area groups, and in 2014, EIS joint-published a report with ForcesWatch raising various concerns about armed forces visits to schools in Scotland, based on data from 2010-12.
* In January 2015, the Executive of the National Union of Students Scotland passed a motion resolving to oppose armed forces recruitment in colleges and universities. The motion is due to be ratified by Sovereign Conference in March 2016. (Source: email, 26 January 2016) In around 2007, a number of students in Scotland were actively involved in the now-defunct campaign School Students Against War, asking hard questions of armed forces visitors to their schools. They were supported by some teachers.
* In 2006 the head of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, Judith Gillespie, expressed concern that students were being given a sanitised image of the armed forces during visits, and stated that parents must be consulted about the visits. The SPTC confirmed in 2015 that their stance remains the same. (Source: email, May 2015) At least one school in Scotland is known to have decided not to let the armed forces visit after a complaint from a parent; there are likely to be other schools that have done the same.
* According to a 2013 Army survey on school careers services, only 51% of careers staff want Army personnel to come in to tell students about Army jobs (and only 43% currently make it happen). Only 46% want the Army to lead employability skills workshops (and only 14% currently make this happen). Only 18% of respondents felt the Army would provide impartial careers advice all of the time; 56% felt it would provide this most of the time, 12% rarely, 4% never, and 10% didn’t know. It should be noted that only 5% of respondents were based in Scotland, which is under-representative, given that Scotland comprises 8.4% of the UK population.
* Rose Gentle, from Glasgow, whose son was in the Army and was killed in the Iraq war in 2004 (aged 19), and who became a founder member of the 3000-strong organisation Military Families Against the War, declared in 2006 that she opposed Army visits to schools in Scotland.
* The SNP MSP Christine Grahame has for many years raised concerns about the issue, and conducted research into it. In January 2016, a senior Scottish Government figure, as well as MSP Chic Brodie and the EIS, all expressed concern about the UK Government’s proposed expansion of Cadet units into disadvantaged state schools in Scotland.
* The issue has become one of concern for Quakers in Scotland. (Source: Minute 10 of General Meeting for Scotland, 15-16 November 2014) Some individuals have written to various local authorities and schools to raise their concerns, with mixed responses.
Ascertaining the stance of the Scottish Government
We also approached the Scottish Government to ascertain their stance. Education Scotland told us in 2014 that there was no national policy or guidelines regarding armed forces visits to schools, as this is for local authorities to decide. (Source: email response from Curriculum Unit, 17 September 2014) In 2015, Education Scotland were quoted as saying that, “The Armed Services would likely be represented at careers events in many schools, invited along with many other employers and professions as a viable option which young people should have the opportunity to know about.” (Source: email from Scottish Parliament Information Centre, 19 June 2015)
In terms of ensuring balanced discussion of controversial issues during armed forces visits, Education Scotland told us that they, ‘provide support for teachers, and identify and share good practice…it is up to the school, working with its local authority, to decide how political discussions will take place with learners. Our political literacy resource considers the sensitive handling of controversial issues.’ (Source: response to FOI request, 25 November 2015. Available from ForcesWatch on request.)
The resource states that, ‘Political literacy is one of the foundations of modern democracy and its guardian. It is the means by which citizens make informed choices about the kind of society they want to live in...It is the vital set of attributes and higher-order thinking skills that enables evidence and reasoned debate to trump unsubstantiated assertion and hyperbole. Political literacy matters in a society...which cherishes the right of every citizen to make up and express her/his own mind...Practitioners are well used to ensuring that contrasting perspectives are explored so that learners can come to an informed view based on evidence and reason…they take particular care not to promote any particular political view at the expense of others...effective practice might include…the use of local guidelines to ensure balance in the views learners encounter...Does everyone involved apply local guidelines which are intended to ensure balance and impartiality in learning experiences?’
The 24 key ‘capabilities’ that the Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to develop in students include: ‘think creatively and independently’; ‘make reasoned evaluations’; ‘make informed choices’; ‘develop informed, ethical views of complex issues’; and ‘apply critical thinking in new contexts’.
These are impressive texts, but a substantial body of evidence suggests that in practice students are not always encountering adequate balance during armed forces visits. Furthermore, unlike the English Education Act 1996 and Independent School Standards 2014, there appears to be no legal requirement for this political balance in the Scottish Education Act 1980 or the Standards In Scotland's Schools Act 2000. Nor is the need for political balance mentioned in the General Teaching Council (GTC) for Scotland’s 2012 ‘Code of Professionalism and Conduct’, which all teachers in Scotland are governed by, or in Scottish headteachers’ ‘Standards for Leadership and Management’, though the teachers’ code does talk of the need for teachers to have a have a thorough knowledge of the curriculum, which – as mentioned above – discusses in detail the importance of critical thinking education.
In autumn 2015 Education Scotland issued guidance on school-employer interactions. However, it does not reflect the concern of a separate statement from a Minister that such interactions, 'must focus on improving the understanding and skills of the learners. It would not be acceptable for an employer to use a relationship with a school as simply a marketing opportunity.' The guidance does, however, advise that schools, ‘discuss with Parent Councils and parents/carers the development of partnerships’.
An accompanying Education Scotland document, 'Career Education Standard', claims that, 'Implementation of the standard...will improve young people’s ability to make informed decisions about future pathways'. In its list of students' 'entitlements', it includes, 'access to a broad range of pathways through their senior phase including learning opportunities leading to work-related qualifications'. It states that Parents/Carers can expect to, 'as key influencers, be better informed and equipped to discuss options with their child and offer support in making choices', and 'have access to a Career Adviser and information on CMS and how to support their child/young person to make informed choices about future career pathways'. However, no responsibility is explicitly placed on teachers, Skills Development Scotland, or employers to ensure informed choices are made - for teachers the nearest expectation was: 'encourage diverse thinking in children and young people to consider a broader view of subject choices, career options and job opportunities.'
It seems that Education Scotland is unaware of the extent of concerns regarding armed forces visits to schools – the recruitment agenda, that students are not always encountering a balance of opposing views regarding the armed forces, the uneven distribution of the visits, that parents/guardians are not always consulted before the visits take place, and that the armed forces have initiated some of the visits.
Ascertaining the stances of Scottish local authorities
We were struck by the dramatic increase in visits between 2003 and c.2011, and by the fact that the Scottish Government, the armed forces and the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES) all saw local authorities as responsible for allowing the visits. (Source: email, 28 October 2015) The Army had stated in 2006 that it was, “visiting a lot more schools compared to the past [there were around 140 in the financial year 2005-6, as opposed to under 15 in 2003-4] and that is largely because we have local authority permission to do so", implying that this was not the case before.
We discovered that COSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) had defended Army visits to schools in 2006, stating: “The army is a key part of our society and it is working hard to recruit. It would be an astonishing thing to close the doors of schools to them”, which overlooked the very legitimate concerns about the visits, and the fact that it is possible to ensure greater transparency and balance without banning visits outright.
We therefore submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all local authorities, asking for: any FOI responses they had provided on the issue between 2003 and 2010; their stance on armed forces visits to schools in their area; how they ensure that students encounter a balanced exploration of opposing views regarding the armed forces during such visits; whether parents/guardians are consulted before their child takes part in an armed forces activity at school; and whether students are given the option to opt out of armed forces visits. The responses show that many local authorities are not clear about the nature of armed forces visits to schools in their area, are not adequately ensuring that students encounter a balance of opposing information, and are not always consulting parents/guardians about the visits, or allowing students to opt out of them.
All 32 local authorities except Highland, Midlothian, Edinburgh, Renfrewshire, and South Lanarkshire responded (though Edinburgh and Midlothian did respond to a letter from Quakers in Scotland on the issue). Most no longer had records of responses they had made to FOI requests on armed forces visits to their schools prior to 2010, as they usually destroy records after three years.
None of the local authorities has a specific policy on armed forces visits to their schools. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Dundee City claimed that their schools did not receive visits. Of the remaining 25 local authorities, many said that it was down to schools or headteachers to develop their own stance. Four local authorities - Argyll and Bute, East Lothian, Inverclyde, and Moray - specified that the visits would need to support the curriculum. Inverclyde implied that they would have a policy if, ‘the visit was to have a political or radical association’, implying that they don’t consider armed forces visits to be political. It is reasonable to say that armed forces visits are political if they put across a point of view that isn’t shared by all major political parties on issues such as the Iraq war, Trident nuclear weapons system, and the minimum age of armed forces recruitment.
Aberdeenshire and South Ayrshire stated that visits for recruitment purposes are not allowed, despite the fact that the FOI request did not mention recruitment. The former said: ‘In our experience the forces are very sensitive about not recruiting in schools and work well with us’. Similarly, Fife stated that, ‘No armed forces visits relate to recruitment or to political matters’. For evidence of the recruitment agenda behind the visits, click here.
In terms of ensuring a balanced exploration of opposing views during armed forces visits, most of the 23 local authorities that responded asserted that their schools (some specified headteachers) do this as a matter of course. For example, Clackmannanshire state: ‘Schools present all information as only one way of viewing things and encourage pupils and students to consider other viewpoints.’ However, few local authorities provide any detail; in contrast to Education Scotland’s expectation of ‘local guidelines which are intended to ensure balance and impartiality in learning experiences’, only Glasgow City claims to issue its schools with guidance on ensuring balance during visits, and the guidelines are in fact very generic, essentially just stating that, ‘The public expects all employees to carry out their duties in a politically neutral way.’ Scottish Borders alone note that the Curriculum for Excellence contains a requirement for political balance (it is surprising that other local authorities didn’t refer to this).
Aberdeenshire’s thorough approach does appear to be compulsory, which is reassuring: ‘Political bias is prevented through having a variety of visitors to schools. Monitoring by school staff during their visits and through personal and social education classes. All teaching and learning takes place within a context where pupils are taught and encouraged to explore and challenge views and information. Where appropriate competing viewpoints will be included in a lesson. Pupils bring that approach and learning to any visit to the school.’ However, it is not clear whether they see ‘having a variety of visitors’ as a general aim, or whether they specifically invite one of the few organisations with an alternative point of view on the armed forces in.
The other examples of better practice are:
* Shetland Islands: ‘A teacher is in the class with the armed forces and can follow this [balance] up in future lessons. Usually Armed Forces visits are part of Careers days. The school would discuss reason for visit and content of talk to students before hand and ensure it fitted into work we were doing in the school.’
* Perth & Kinross: ‘when it is applicable, the pupils have an opportunity to discuss, debate explore and address through a range of subjects within Curriculum for Excellence, for example Religious and Moral Education and Social Education classes.’
* and North Ayrshire: ‘We would ask that resources are passed to a senior manager prior to delivery and that planned visits are discussed with the Head Teacher…Staff will use the resources in accordance with equalities policy and will seek to use them in a balanced way.’ However, the critical discussions should happen every time, rather than just being a possibility.
In contrast, West Lothian misguidedly puts the onus on students: ‘Young people learn to form their opinions through social subjects, Religious and Moral Education, Critical reading and writing and the reality of war in History.’ Students’ learning will vary a lot depending on how engaged they are at school, which is often linked to their socio-economic background. It is also unconvincing that History teaches students the reality of war; it certainly doesn’t teach them the reality of contemporary war, which is what is relevant here.
All the local authorities demand that for safeguarding reasons armed forces visitors have no unsupervised contact with students; they are always accompanied by one or more members of school staff. This makes it less likely that sanitised or one-sided presentations will go unchallenged, and undoubtedly many teachers in Scotland are excellent at ensuring balanced discussion, but this requires them to have a nuanced understanding of the political nature of many of the issues that the armed forces are likely to talk about, and to follow the session closely, whereas the possession of such an understanding cannot be assumed (especially in a political climate of very high support for the armed forces, which makes it difficult to question them), and anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers’ heavy workloads occasionally make it tempting to use visits by external organisations as an opportunity to catch up on lesson-planning or marking. (contact ForcesWatch for details of anecdotal evidence)
This is not to undermine Glasgow City’s emphasis that it ‘trusts the professionalism of headteachers and staff in the school’, but a precedent of a local authority responding to evidence of a lack of balance is Glasgow’s own investigation following complaints in 2015 that a primary school teacher had imposed her political views on her class, with the council ultimately reminding its teachers of the need for balance.
In addition, if the armed forces are visiting as part of a careers fairs, school staff will not be able to observe their interactions with students; how are schools ensuring their students make an informed choice in this setting? Indeed, East Renfrewshire implies that political balance isn’t necessary during careers fairs, only during classroom visits. In contrast, Aberdeen City only refers to balance regarding ‘career’ events, raising questions as to whether it sees the need to ensure it during other types of armed forces activity in its schools. And in the three cases where the responsibility for ensuring balance is specified as being the headteacher’s - East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and Glasgow City - do the headteachers observe the armed forces’ activities in person?
Local authorities’ stances on consulting parents/guardians before armed forces visits are the most varied. Around two-thirds of the 24 who responded to this question say that their schools consult them on any visits from external organisations, with several specifying that parents/guardians are welcome to discuss any concerns with school management. Five local authorities - East Ayrshire, East Lothian, Falkirk, Inverclyde and Stirling - leave it to headteachers’ discretion, though Falkirk encourage consultation. East Renfrewshire only refer to careers fairs, and say that students usually attend these with their parents. Two local authorities – Clackmannanshire and Glasgow City - do not consult parents/guardians. Clackmannanshire state that parents, ‘trust us to give a balanced view and accept that their children hear opinions other than their own.’
Most local authorities affirm students’ right to opt out of armed forces activities on grounds of conscience. Inverclyde, Stirling and West Lothian state that the final decision is down to the headteacher/school, and Falkirk say: ‘Whether an activity was optional would be dependent on the context of the activity and the pupils who were involved’, implying that some armed forces activities in its schools could be compulsory. North Ayrshire schools would require a parent to object in writing for the Head Teacher to consider excusing their child; this would only be possible if parents were informed of the visit in advance, which the schools would do ‘generally’, but not always. (Sources: FOI responses, sent to requester by email, dates ranging from 21 May 2015 to 15 January 2016. Copies available from ForcesWatch on request)
In conclusion, the numerous, serious concerns about armed forces visits to schools in Scotland are recognised by several major teachers’, students’ and parents’ organisations, but are not adequately acknowledged – or are not being sufficiently addressed – by the Scottish Government, local authorities or schools. Indeed, there is a major lack of clarity as to who is responsible for overseeing the visits; the Scottish Government, the armed forces, and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) claim it is local authorities, but many local authorities say it is individual schools/headteachers. A thorough investigation into these concerns by the Scottish Parliament is much-needed, particular as the relationship between private sector employers and Scottish schools has been looked into, with guidance issued.