ForcesWatch comment


ForcesWatch Comment

This afternoon the Welsh Assembly debated the issue of armed forces visits to schools in Wales, following the Welsh Government’s acceptance of the Welsh Assembly Petitions Committee’s three recommendations for ensuring greater transparency and balance of views regarding these visits. The debate can be watched online here, and a transcript of it can be read online here.

Earlier in the day, the issue was explored by BBC Wales in a written piece and two lively radio debates – one in Welsh and one in English – both of which featured a spokesperson from ForcesWatch, raising our concerns about the recruitment agenda behind the visits, the greater frequency of visits to schools in areas of greater deprivation, and the sanitised, glamourised image of the armed forces that students often seem to be getting from the visits. Welsh-language S4C TV explored the issue in their evening news (from 19mins) and then the political discussion show (from 14.50)

The Welsh Assembly debate saw a range of views expressed, by Welsh Assembly Members from all five Parties, although there was a general consensus that the issues was an important one because of the unique nature of an armed forces career, and a general support for the recommendations. The Petitions Committee chair William Powell AM opened the debate, noting that the Petitions Committee found that whilst a ban on armed forces visits to schools would be inappropriate, there was evidence that the visits occur more in areas of disadvantage, and asserted that the visits must not involve glamourised representations of the armed forces being put across unchallenged to students.

'Joining the Army is not a real life video game'

Jenny Rathbone AM stressed that 'Joining the Army is not a real life video game' – that military life can be 'dangerous & unpredictable', with the possibility of having ‘to kill someone you don’t know and have never met’, and of being killed or permanently injured, part of the ‘horrors of war’. She noted that the UK is the only country in the EU to recruit 16 year-olds into the armed forces (something ForcesWatch is campaigning to change). She also mentioned concerns about the low levels of literacy among many recruits, and about the spate of deaths during armed forces training in recent years. She stated that 'We should be very cautious about Army recruitment in schools'.

Darren Millar AM, chair of the Cross Party Group on Armed Forces and Cadets, reiterated the claim often made by the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence, that the armed forces never visit schools for recruitment purposes, but rather that they help to deliver the National Curriculum, and that they only attend schools on invitation. ForcesWatch have deconstructed these claims many times, most recently in this Wales-specific briefing. We would not disagree with his points that it is unsurprising that some schools receive more visits because their headteachers are well-disposed to them, and they have long associations with the armed forces.  However, his emphasis on the trades that the armed forces can offer, and the armed forces’ peace-keeping role, overlooks the facts that the youngest, most disadvantaged recruits, are greatly over-represented in the most dangerous and least-transferable skills-providing parts of the armed forces.

This emphasis on potential skills provided by the armed forces also overlooks the fundamental role of the military; as the Army stated in a rare, candid moment in 1996: ‘The fundamental and perhaps only difference of significance, between military service and other legitimate professions and occupations is that servicemen and women must be prepared, at any time and in the service of others rather than themselves, to participate in protracted and sometimes wholesale destruction and violence, to kill and be killed for benign and politically justifiable purposes... It is easy in the myopia of a prolonged period of peace and low intensity operations to lose sight of this ultimate reality.’ Lastly, his claim that other employers would visit schools on a similar level to the armed forces if they were invited or made more of an effort, does not take into account that the armed forces have significant resources for these visits. For example, the Welsh Ambulance Service hardly makes any school visits as it doesn’t have the resources to do so, and the Welsh Fire Service make more visits but focus on fire safety. In any case, the professions are not comparable; as the Army quote above goes on to say: ‘Other professions, such as the police and fire service, also face death and injury, often more frequently than do members of the Army, but not on the same potential scale, or with the same inherent levels of lethal danger; none face the potentially devastating experience of deliberately taking life as a normal part of their roles.’


Following our recent piece on the news story that the Ministry of Defence requested access (which the Department for Education rejected) to the database of sensitive data of school students in England, to help the Army better target its recruitment practice, it has emerged that the Army - in collaboration with Royal Holloway College and the mobile phone app specialists DotNet - was specifically seeking to match individuals’ data with specific Army jobs, with a mobile phone app an apparent intended output.

Data protection expert Tim Turner says this use of the data would have breached data protection laws: “They would need consent which they don’t have … and they would need to tell the young people that the data was being shared, which they haven’t done.”

After having their request rejected, the Army employee behind the request, from their 'information superiority branch' based at the Army's headquarters in Andover, emailed the DfE requesting information about the appeals process; it’s unclear whether a formal appeal has been submitted.

All this undermines the two claims by the MoD quoted in the original news coverage of the story: firstly, that they aren’t targeting individuals for recruitment, and secondly that the request was an error that had been “halted”. The MoD have refused to comment.

We know that the armed forces visit schools for recruitment purposes so they can avoid the influence of parents and other ‘gatekeepers.’ This would have allowed them to do that more effectively.


Letter to The Independent (see all signatories below)

Towns and cities across the UK will today (27 June) be “celebrating” Armed Forces Day. Many councils hold these events as signatories to the Armed Forces Community Covenant; almost every local authority has pledged support to the armed forces in perpetuity, and hundreds of businesses, charities and schools have signed the Armed Forces Corporate Covenant.

Many of today’s events are packaged as “family fun”, with military vehicles and weaponry to entice young people, and cadet and armed forces careers marketing to recruit them. War is not family entertainment.

The school assembly packs on offer from the Ministry of Defence display a breath-taking economy with the truth about the purpose and consequences of military action.

Rather than institutionalising public support for the armed forces we should stop selling war to children through sanitised celebration of the military and the promotion of “military ethos” in schools. It is unacceptable for the UK to be the only country in the EU to still recruit 16-year-olds into the armed forces, defying the growing international consensus against child recruitment.

As one of the thousands of signatories of our petition to change the law said: “Children should be protected from conflict, not incorporated in it.”

Pat Gaffney, Pax Christi UK
Emma Sangster, ForcesWatch
Ben Griffin, Veterans for Peace UK
Bruce Kent, Abolition of War
Matt Jeziorski, Peace Education Network
Claire Poyner, Network for Peace 
Philip Austin, Northern Friends Peace Board 
Brian Larkin, Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre

Sign the petition here


ForcesWatch comment

A year ago we wrote how Armed Forces Day symbolises the creep of militarism into our civil institutions. Far from being merely a reflection of public respect, this creep is the result of a concerted effort, which can be tracked through policy initiatives and is fuelled by concern that the military are losing control of the public narrative around defence. Armed Forces Day itself comes out of the Government report of 2008, National Recognition of our Armed Forces, which sets out to establish a host of 'countervailing measures' to shore up support for the forces eroded by recent conflicts.

We noted how these public displays, which are ostensibly about supporting 'the men and women who make up the Armed Forces', (including Camo DayReserves Day and the Poppy Appeal), act to market the military as an institution and to build a positive and uncritical narrative around it and support its recruitment needs.

A year, and another Armed Forces Day, later, we look here at how militarism continues to creep into schools and colleges and how recent developments further embed military approaches and interests within the education system.

Disrupting the message at North Wales Armed Forces Day, 20 June 2015. Photo: Wrexham Peace and Justice Forum


The Department for Education has given out its £3.5 million ‘Character Awards’ and its £3.5 million Character Education grants, both championed by Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, to 27 schools and youth organisations in England, and 14 youth projects, respectively.  Despite the DfE's heralding of 'military ethos' as an  excellent means of developing character, none of those awarded mention military-style activities in their descriptions (see here and here) and the DfE says it ‘does not hold the information’ on whether any of the Character Award projects are military ethos-oriented.

Instead, the projects include Personal Social Health & Citizenship Education, Citizenship, community and charity volunteering, outdoor activities without any military aspect, and empathy-building activities. They were selected by a panel of education and youth work experts. Particularly striking is the £500,000 scheme to bring professional rugby players into schools ‘to instil character and resilience in disaffected children’. Comments from Nicky Morgan and Chief Executive of Premiership Rugby Mark McCafferty on the values that rugby players can imbue are very reminiscent of the rhetoric around the 'military ethos in schools' programme.

All this suggests that non-military approaches to developing ‘character’ can be at least as effective as military approaches. Indeed, Birmingham University’s Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues 2015 report Building Character through Youth Social Action provides  a wealth of evidence of the efficacy of non-military ethos initiatives in developing important skills in young people. The providers interviewed for the study work with over one million young people; the Army, Air, Sea, or Combined Cadets were not among them, though the Prince’s Trust (which since 2013 has been a provider of the DfE-funded ‘alternative provision with a military ethos’ for ‘disengaged’ students), Youth United (whose network of ten youth organisations includes the Army, Sea, and Air Cadets, and which is also one of the Character Education grant receipients), and Prince Charles’ Step Up To Serve initiative (the government's press release photo of which features Cadets prominently) were.

The report states that the government’s own research has found 'robust evidence that young people who take part in social action initiatives develop some of the most critical skills for employment and adulthood in the process', including empathy, problem-solving, grit and resilience, cooperation, and a sense of community.

Emphasising that it is social action which is vital in building character, the report notes: 'This is well recognised in the education sector, with most young people getting involved in social action through school or college...61% of interviewees said that young people already have a number of virtues before taking part in social action. For some, this is because certain virtues are innate; for others, it is because they have learnt them in different ways... Just under half of interviewees stated that some virtues can be ‘caught’ by-products...They said that this happens most often through exposing young people to opportunities, which providers create, in which they can discover and practise those virtues, but also includes experiential learning...peer-to-peer learning, and role-modelling...Just three interviewees (13%) said they believe that virtues can be taught, such as through guidance, formal coaching or training programmes.’ There is no suggestion that any particular type of facilitator or activity is particularly well-placed to achieve this, in contrast to the assertions behind military ethos initiatives.