Ministry of Defence misleading public over armed forces visits to schools

04/06/2018ForcesWatch comment
With the publication of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee report on our petition on armed forces visits to schools, there has been substantial coverage in the news (see our round-up). The Ministry of Defence have said a number of things in response that are very disputable – this blog outlines some of the evidence.

After several years of work from ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament recognised child rights and welfare concerns around the activities.

The Ministry of Defence have said a number of things in response that are very disputable – this blog outlines some of the evidence.

Engaging with young people via Armed Forces Day events is one of many ways in which the armed forces seek to interest kids in signing up – this time (above) –  from a primary school.

An MoD spokesperson said today that school visits ‘are not done for recruitment purposes.’

The Ministry of Defence deny and play down the recruitment agenda of their visits to schools repeatedly in order to mislead and placate the public and prevent public unrest. They are documented as stating that there is a need to distance ‘recruiting’ from other ‘youth and curriculum activities’, and for ‘recruiters’ to ‘package their work as citizenship programmes rather than pure recruiting’ – because of the risk of schools being uncomfortable.

The MoD insists that it cannot be said to recruit in schools as this would constitute the final act of signing on paper. Yet they are documented as saying that they in fact define recruiting as a process from initial interest to enlistment with the involvement of recruitment staff.

There is clear documentation of the Army saying they aim to ‘attract potential recruits over the long-term’ with their visits to schools; and of the Ministry of Defence citing recruitment and the ‘continued support of the population’ as the two key objectives of its work in schools.

The Ministry of Defence have said their rationale with school engagement is to ‘provide positive information to influence future opinion formers’ and ‘enable recruiters to access the school environment’.

The House of Commons Defence Select Committee has referred to military personnel going into schools as recruiters, and has talking about establishing a more systematic approach to engaging with school pupils for the purpose of recruitment.

The UK Government has stated that the Army’s ‘recruiting initiatives’ include presentations in schools by Army career advisers’ as well as a number of other activities that form part of their school engagement.

All references are here.

An Army in Scotland spokesperson said they visit schools ‘only when specifically invited to do so by headteachers’, emphasised curriculum activities over explicit careers links & suggested latter are only for ‘older pupils who have expressed an interest.’

While the armed forces state that they only go to schools on request, the Ministry of Defence witnesses in a Public Petitions Committee hearing in 2017 acknowledged that each service contacts all schools in Scotland annually and ensures each school has up-to-date information available to pupils. Communication about potential visits is therefore not initiated by schools but by the services cold calling.

We have analysed Ministry of Defence figures, provided under a freedom of information request, which showed that 770 visits were made by the armed forces to Scottish schools between April 2016 and March 2017.

Nearly 60 per cent of these were made by the Army and 75 per cent of the visits promoted a career in the military.

The Scottish Youth Parliament conducted a consultation with young people in 2016; several focus group participants said a military base has ‘loads of access’ to their school and that ‘On Careers Day, 90% of the stalls were armed forces. It’s positive if you’re interested in the armed forces, but I have absolutely zero interest and there’s nothing for anyone else.’

A small number of the Army’s visits to schools will be to provide more focused activities for students who have shown some interest in signing up. However, the majority of careers activities are presentations or careers events are aimed at whole year groups. The Army do state that they do not make visits to year groups below S2/year 9, but this includes pupils aged 12 and older.

The Army in Scotland spokesperson also that what they do in schools is ‘in line with other major employers who are invited to speak to pupils’.

The data suggests that no other public service or business employer visits schools to the same extent as the armed forces and a recent study suggests information about apprenticeships is not distributed well in schools in Scotland.

The Scottish Youth Parliament said in their submission to the Committee that, ‘At the focus group, it was also highlighted that schools with strong links to the armed forces could be unbalanced when it came to other potential employer visits. Two focus group participants related their experience of going to a school with strong links to a military base: “The school can’t function without [the military base]. They have loads of access to the school as a result. On Careers Day, 90% of the stalls were armed forces. It’s positive if you’re interested in the armed forces, but I have absolutely zero interest and there’s nothing for anyone else.’”

Brigadier Paul Buttery is quoted as telling the Committee that ‘Presentations are balanced’.

We have provided ample evidence that any existing provision to ensure balance and dispassionate career advice is frequently not adhered to. The reality of armed forces visits to schools is very different to what the Scottish Government would clearly consider to be right and appropriate. This is also suggested in evidence provided to the Committee.

For example, the Scottish Youth Parliament conducted a survey of young people on this topic and noted the following responses that demonstrate the reality of armed forces visits to schools falling short of fulfilling a requirement for balance:

  • ‘As a 14 year old who was in the closet at the time, hearing “We’ll make you into a proper man” was damaging. They presented the armed forces in terms of the stereotype of a “macho man.”
  • ‘No more Top Gun music (which I witnessed first-hand). It fictionalises what is really at points a matter of life and death, and glorifies killing.’
  • ‘The presentation talked about the positives of being in the army, but didn’t address negative consequences. The presented completely sidestepped a question someone had about PTSD.’ (emphasis ours).
  • ‘Of the focus group participants who had experienced armed forces visits to schools, only one had experienced a presentation that highlighted possible negative consequences of a career in the army as well as the positive.’ (emphasis ours).
  • ‘Young people consulted were asked for their views on the petitions’ three main recommendations on guidance, monitoring and consultation. Of the young people consulted, 34 out of 45 young people agreed with the petition’s call, 7 disagreed, and 4 were unsure. “I feel this is a very good plan because people who join the armed forces need to know everything that is involved in their role.” “There should be different standards for the armed forces as recruiters [compared to other employers].”

Other evidence of the lack of balance include the following:

  • Skills Development Scotland (formerly Career Scotland) has organised armed forces visits to schools in the past, and has Careers Advisers in all Scottish Schools. The Careers Advisers refer all students they speak with to their jobs website, My World of Work; the armed forces sections of this website mention some of the risks and legal restrictions, but with serious omissions. Some sections refer to ‘mental, physical and emotional challenges’ but others, such as the Army Soldier page does not. There is no detail or indication of the severity of the risk. No reference is made on any of the pages to risk to life, taking life, or being under military law.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that a biased approach to information is normal. In 2012 some Army recruiters in Scotland claimed they were, ‘ordered to lie to get youngsters to sign up…to hide the horrors of war from the potential recruits.’

Read more about the Public Petition Committee’s report here and more information about the petition.

See more: recruitment, recruitment age,