Lack of balance during armed forces visits to schools in Scotland

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There is evidence from accounts given by young people and those who have visited schools on behalf of the armed forces that a balance of views and information is very often lacking. Presentations focus on the benefits of a military career and are unlikely to discuss the risks or legal obligations. Emphasis is put on adventure, fun and a good salary rather than mentioning the realities and ethical considerations involved in military life and combat; this has the effect of sanitising and even glamorising the armed forces. Some activities with schools involve displaying weapons or military vehicles; this is likely to obscure a more nuanced and balanced view of the military that the education system should encourage. Some students have felt uncomfortable with gender-related stereotypes or by not wanting to take part in activities involving the military. Finally, there is evidence that the armed forces sometimes talk about controversial issues, such as recent conflicts or nuclear deterrence, in a way that does not ensure political balance.

There is also evidence that equal access is not given to other career providers. 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. As well as providing careers information, the armed forces are involved in a significant number of STEM-based curriculum activities, which could further skew knowledge about available opportunities in their direction.

A career in the military is not like any other and the armed forces should not be considered the same as other employers. A military career carries unique risks, legal obligations and ethical considerations. This was recognised by the Welsh Government when they accepted similar calls for oversight in 2015.

The report on UK child recruitment by public health charity Medact states: ‘It is known that adolescents are generally more susceptible than adults to the persuasive effects of marketing. This susceptibility is exploited by the use of ‘sustained marketing campaigns’ by the MoD, using a variety of advertising techniques including the use of persuasion and influence to draw children towards a career in the Army.


Overview of the risks, legal restrictions, and ethical dilemmas faced in the armed forces

Those in the most dangerous roles, such as the Army Infantry, are at greater risk of being killed or physically or mentally injured. The youngest recruits, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, tend to be overrepresented in these roles, and tend to remain in the armed forces for longer.

Recruits who joined the Army at 16 were twice as likely to be killed in Afghanistan than those who joined at 18. Similarly, Iraq War veterans under 25 were more than twice as likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than those over 40, and those with no GCSEs were twice as likely to develop it than those with A-Levels.

The risks to health and wellbeing are greater for those recruited as children than those recruited as adults. The recently published Medact report details the disproportionate health risks faced by child recruits. It also examines psychological and psychosocial research showing that teenagers are less likely than adults to have all the faculties that would equip them to be guarded against persuasive and unbalanced information and to make informed and well-processed choices involving long-term personal risk.

In addition, members of the armed forces are subject to uniquely restrictive military law. After a short window in which they can leave, new recruits usually have to serve for several years. Refusal to carry out an order, going Absent Without Leave, or Deserting can lead to a long incarceration in military prison. Armed forces personnel are also prohibited from taking part in political marches, or joining a trade union.

Furthermore, members of the armed forces are faced with unique ethical dilemmas, particularly in times of war. A rare candid statement on this came from the Army in 1996:

‘[t]he 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.’ 


Provision for ensuring balanced discussion of political and controversial issues in Scottish schools

In addition to the controversial nature of the armed forces outlined above, there are several issues that the armed forces will sometimes (if not often) cover in school presentations that political parties are divided over, for example the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons, the Iraq war, and the armed forces’ recruitment of minors. The armed forces will likely justify these things as necessary, as they have done in lesson resources.

Unlike England’s Education Act 1996 and Independent School Standards 2014, Scotland's Education Act 1980 and Standards in Scotland’s Schools Act 2000 do not specify a legal requirement for students to encounter a balance of opposing views when looking at a ‘political’ issue at school. However, expectations of such balance have been clearly outlined by the Scottish Government, local councils, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, and Scottish teachers’ unions:

* Education Scotland state that their ‘political literacy’ resource offers guidance to teachers on addressing controversial issues at school. (Source: response to FOI request, 25 November 2015. Available from ForcesWatch on request) The resource promotes critical thinking and reasoned debate. In addition, many of the 24 key ‘capabilities’ that the Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to develop in students relate to critical thinking.

* In 2015 both Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour stated that students should hear different points of view on political issues.

* Regarding armed forces visits specifically, in 2006 the head of the Scottish Parents Teacher Council said, "The fact that visits to schools are increasing at a time when injuries and deaths are clearly part of the experience for soldiers in the army is a cause for concern. A lot depends on how it is pitched to the pupils. If they are saying, 'Yes, there are risks - it's not just about travelling the world', then that might be okay. But I wonder if the message sent out is really that balanced." The SPTC confirmed in 2015 that their stance remains the same.  (Source: email, May 2015)

* Teachers’ unions the EIS and the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association felt it was unnecessary of Edinburgh City Council to tell teachers in its schools in 2013 that they must, “facilitate fair and balanced discussions” regarding the referendum on Scottish independence, as they felt teachers will do this automatically. Similarly, most Scottish councils claim that their schools ensure political balance as a matter of course. Similarly, most Scottish councils state that their schools ensure political balance as a matter of course. (FOI responses, sent to requester by email, dates ranging from 21 May 2015 to 15 January 2016. Copies available from ForcesWatch on request)


Evidence of a lack of balance

Only Glasgow City Council states that it issues its schools with guidance on ensuring balance during visits, and these 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.’ (FOI responses, sent to requester by email, dates ranging from 21 May 2015 to 15 January 2016. Copies available from ForcesWatch on request)

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', states 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.'

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 to do with the armed forces, 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 the visits by external organisations as an opportunity to catch up on lesson-planning or marking. (contact ForcesWatch for details of anecdotal evidence) 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.

There is substantial evidence that discussions during armed forces visits to schools in Scotland are not always balanced:

* In the Scottish Youth Parliament’s submission to the Petitions Committee, they note the results of their consultation with 49 young people. Of the 27 who had experienced an armed forces visit to their school, only one had experienced an armed forces visit that highlighted the possible negative consequences of an armed forces career as well as the positive. One young person noted: ‘At the time, I found it inspiring. With retrospect though, I think this was damaging. It glorified violence.’ 8 out of the 27 did not find the visit to be a positive experience, saying that they found it portrayed an imbalanced representation and enforced harmful stereotypes. One said: ‘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.” Another said “The presenter completely side-stepped a question someone had about PTSD.”

* In 2008, the chief executive of the youth careers organisation Connexions Greater Merseyside told the Defence Committee that, ‘when the Armed Forces [visit schools and] do their sales drives, so to speak, they are very good at it. Obviously, they tend to feature the benefits, challenges and opportunities that the forces provide and do not focus quite so much on the conflicts and perhaps more controversial issues.’ Tellingly, even when denying allegations that their visits comprise recruitment and a lack of balance, the armed forces have sometimes made very sanitised, glamourised assertions, such as: “It is a fine and honourable thing to be a Scottish soldier and we have a duty to explain to Scottish children who we are and what we do to protect our nation, and pass on valuable skills such as leadership, teamwork and citizenship”.

* According to a 2013 Army survey on school careers services 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.

* Skills Development Scotland (formerly Career Scotland) has organised armed forces visits to schools, and has Careers Advisers in all Scottish Schools. (Source: email, 22 December 2015) The Careers Advisors refer all students they speak with to their jobs website, the armed forces sections of which discuss some of the risks, legal restrictions, and ethical dilemmas, but with serious omissions. For example, the fact that risks are much higher in some roles than others is not mentioned, and the Royal Marine, Royal Marines Officer, and Navy Officer webpages don’t feature the warning that is on the other profiles in smallprint: ‘you will at times be operating in difficult and dangerous conditions and there may be the risk of injury or death’. The Navy Officer webpage also omits the note on the other profiles that, ‘All soldiers must be ready to go to war. They all train to fight’ (or similar), though the Navy Officer webpage does not mention this. There is no reference to killing on any of the webpages – only to ‘fight’, ‘combat’, and ‘launching attacks’. The strict terms of notice are discussed, but there is no reference to the fact that not following orders, trying to leave before the end of your contract without exceptional circumstances, and so on, can be severely punished under military law.

* In 2012 some Army recruiters in Scotland claimed they were, ‘ordered to lie to get youngsters to sign hide the horrors of war from the potential recruits. Those who refused to follow the orders...[were] taken off recruitment duties and sent back to their barracks to face disciplinary action. It is unclear if lying was encouraged for school visits specifically.

* In 2015 the Welsh Assembly Petitions Committee stated that, ‘the armed forces are unique in that they are the only employer where recruits accept, as a normal function of their employment, that they may need to harm or kill other human beings. Relatively high risks of injury or death are not unique to the armed forces but asking recruits to deliberately put themselves in positions where these risks are maximised is also different to most other jobs. From this perspective, inviting the armed forces into schools should perhaps be treated with considerably more care than other potential employers...It would be naïve to believe that in visiting schools the forces have no interest in projecting themselves as providing interesting and accessible career opportunities...Schools concerned to ensure that the often very necessary work of the armed forces is not overly glamorised and that the risks are clearly explained...schools [in Wales] would welcome further guidance on inviting the armed forces into schools to ensure that visits are balanced and appropriate.’

* Former soldier Martin McGing, who took part in Army visits to schools, said in 2007 that he thought they glossed over the hard realities of military life: “The recruiters tried to sell the Army basically by using weapons, such as this, the SA80... [the students would] think it was brilliant. The recruiters... sell the Army by saying ‘You’d be able to get these – I don’t know – driving courses, these HGV courses, basically all good stuff that you can get in civilian life, but they say ‘it’s all free, in the Army’...In my view no, it weren’t an honest approach. I think it’s wrong, the way that it is put over to young children”.  Similarly,  an Army recruiter in Wales said in 2013 that he felt uneasy about the way that the Army was being presented to school students there; aware that, “because they are young...the idea of death and injury is just an abstraction to them, it is not real to them”, he tried to “emphasise the harsh reality”. However, his wife saw him at a school careers day and said he was being too negative, reminding him that the Army “offers opportunities”, which he took onboard. And Mike Hamilton, the head of school 'alternative provision with a military ethos' organisation Commando Joe’s, wrote in early 2015 that: “Before I left [the Army] I worked on a team which delivered sessions into schools (Secondary). Pupils, staff and SLT [Senior Leadership Teams] loved the sessions on teamwork and communication skills, however i felt that it was promoting the military to much and didn't give a rounded view on joining the Military”.

* An Army schools presentation powerpoint obtained by Freedom of Information request says nothing explicitly about the risks, legal restrictions or ethical dilemmas faced in the Army. Some of the photos show weaponry and combat, but in a sanitised way. (Source: response to FOI request, 2 April 2015. Available from ForcesWatch on request)


Balance with other employers

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. As well as providing careers information, the armed forces are involved in a significant number of STEM-based curriculum activities, which could further skew knowledge about available opportunities in their direction. engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. These activities are delivered by various parts of the armed forces including Army Youth Engagement and British Army Outreach, RAF Youth Engagement, the Royal Navy and the Armed Forces Careers Offices; and also by the MoD's Defence Engineering organisation and a 'Roadshow Team' which is run by BAE Systems and works with the RAF and Navy to deliver activities in schools.[1] The MoD are also developing partnership memorandums of understanding with a range of other STEM providers. 


Additional points

All this closely linked to concerns about the recruitment agenda behind the armed forces’ visits to schools in Scotland. It also links to concerns that alternatives to military approaches to conflict resolution do not receive enough attention in schools, contrary to recommendations from the UN.

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Ask your MP to support raising the age of recruitment

Scottish Parliament Petition

ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament to:

  • scrutinise armed forces visits to schools in Scotland
  • provide guidance on how such visits should be conducted
  • ensure that parents are always consulted.

The petition is now being heard by the Scottish Parliament. See more info.

Watch our film - Engage: the military and young people

Why does the military have a 'youth engagement' policy and why is the government promoting 'military ethos' within education? What is the impact of military activities taking place in schools? This short film explores these questions and gives teenagers the opportunity to voice their reaction to the military’s interest in their lives.

See film and more info. With Welsh subtitles

Our military out of schools campaign

The UK armed forces visit thousands of schools each year. They offer school presentation teams, youth teams, ‘careers advice’ and lessons plans. The Department for Education is promoting 'military ethos in schools'. Should the armed forces by given access to children within education? Should 'military values' be promoted in schools? How can we challenge these activities? How can a more balanced view of what life in the armed forces involves be given to young people? Read more about the Military Out Of Schools campaign