The military's influence in UK education


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Emma Sangster

The armed forces are increasingly being provided with access to young people within the UK education system – mainly at secondary and further education level but also within universities and even primary schools. In addition to armed forces presentations and other visits to schools and colleges which have been going on for many years, there is a new push to make 'military ethos and skills' a part of school life.

To understand what is driving these practices and policies it is important to look at the wider dynamics between the armed forces and civil society. This article looks briefly at recent initiatives and developments that reflect a new and concerted effort to see the military play a larger role in civil society.

National Recognition

In 2008 the Labour government published the Report of Inquiry into the National Recognition of the Armed Forces. The report was concerned with measures to increase the recognition that we give to our Armed Forces - including wearing uniforms in public, the idea of a national Armed Forces Day, greater support for homecoming parades, and an expansion of cadet forces, which we know bring benefit to the Armed Forces and young people alike...[involving] local authorities, voluntary bodies, the private sector and, above all, the people up and down the country who devote their time to running cadet units or military charities, or who need another way of expressing their appreciation for what our Armed Forces do for us.[1]

It made forty recommendations for 'increasing visibility', 'improving contact', 'building understanding' and 'encouraging support' for the Armed Forces. Under the new coalition government, the 2010 Report on the Task Force of the Military Covenant led to the codifying of the 'moral obligation' between the military, the government and the country in the 2011 Armed Forces Covenant. This outlined a proposal for an Armed Forces Community Covenant which 'has its roots in a successful US scheme in which states and towns (incorporating local government and local service providers, the voluntary sector and private companies) voluntarily pledge support for the military community in their area.'[2]

Some of the ways in which these policies affect young people include:

  • Armed Forces Day: This was first held in 2009 and takes place on a Saturday in late June 'so that school children and most working adults would be available to attend events'. Local communities around the country organise parades or an event to celebrate and show support for the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces in turn provide teaching resources for the event. The army's resource for use with children aged 7 to 11, has a section on Real Life Heroes which asks the children to look at a website to find out about different roles within the military 'to see how the qualities you identified for being a hero apply to working for the Armed Forces in keeping our nation safe'.
  • Cadets: The government chose Armed Forces Day 2012 to announce funding of nearly £11 million to increase the number of Combined Cadet Forces in state schools. Research into strengthening non-school based cadet units has also been undertaken.
  • In schools: The National Inquiry report recommended that an 'understanding' of the armed forces be promoted in schools via the national curriculum, presentations by local Armed Forces units and visits by individual serving men and women to their old schools. Although the Armed Forces already visit thousands of schools each year, these recommendations, and the recent Department for Education 'military ethos and skills' policy, indicates that this is increasingly being led by central government and is not a matter for individual schools to determine.
  • Community Covenants: By late 2012 half the local authorities in the UK had signed a covenant 'to encourage local communities to support the service community in their area and promote understanding and awareness among the public of issues affecting the armed forces community.' So far, £5 million worth of central government funding has been used to promote the scheme and for grants to local initiatives including those that involve children and young people in schools, through play activities.

Future Reserves

In 2012 the Ministry of Defence published a consultation on its strategy for increasing the role of the reserve forces as the number of regular forces is reduced. Future Reserves 2020: Delivering the Nation’s Security Together outlines how the Reserve Forces will grow (to a trained strength of 30,000 in the Army Reserve) and will be an integral and integrated element of our Armed Forces. While the overall numbers we require are well within historic norms, we will need greater assurance that the reserves will be available for training and deployment when needed.[3]

The intention is that, in order to create a larger pool of potential reserves, a new relationship with communities, employers, reservists and their families will have to be formed. A greater commitment from society will be sought so that a larger number of people who are not professional soldiers are attracted to joining the reserves. Pathways through education and employment will be developed and new roles for reservists, including a new deal in terms of pay, support and recognition, will be on offer.

A new role for the military in public life – an example

When the corporate giant G4 failed to provide adequate security for the 2012 Olympics in London the Armed Forces were seen to save the day when thousands of soldiers stepped in to do the job. At a time when the Armed Forces is seeking to develop a new relationship with civil society, whilst undergoing major restructuring, this was a significant moment. Post-Olympic speculation suggested that politicians may take the success of the Armed Forces in this role as a sign that the public is more likely to accept a military presence on the streets in the event of austerity-related civil disturbances or public strikes.

However, the role of the military in the Olympics was far greater than this. The Guardian newspaper stated that, 'The Olympics have become a festival of the global security industry, with a running and jumping contest as a sideshow.'[4] 13,500 military personnel had been planned for security roles from the start, naval ships were stationed on the Thames and in Weymouth Bay, and Typhoon jets were based in London for the first time since the Second World War. Also installed were helicopters, sonic weapons, snipers, ground-to-air missiles (at six sites, including on residential buildings), and armed police on the public transport system. Armed Forces personnel participated prominently in the ceremonial events. Although community campaigns against the missiles failed to reverse the decision, the publicity around it did uncover just how militarised modern-day Olympics, and other mega-events, have become.

The military's agenda in schools

The 'engagement' of the armed forces with young people in schools is part of a wider, sophisticated recruitment strategy involving social media, computer games, clubs for teenagers to join, advertisement campaigns and contact within communities and schools. It is centred around the individual and their desire for positive challenges, adventure, a stable career, and to better themselves. The brief for one public relations campaign was 'self-development powered by the army'. What this actually means for a young person was encapsulated by the head of army recruitment strategy Colonel David Allfrey in 2007: 'Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, 'That looks great.' From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.'[5]

The UK Armed Forces visit thousands of schools each year. They offer school presentation teams, 'careers advisers', lessons plans, away days, one-to-one mentoring, interviews, and more. Across the country, they visit around 8,800 schools each year engaging approximately 900,000 students.[6] The education system is an important arena for access to young people as it offers an opportunity to reach a large proportion of children, and bypasses parents and other gatekeepers.

School resources on Camo Day and Armed Forces Day. One section suggests that to be a true hero you have to be in the Armed Forces. (credit–Emma Sangster)

School resources on Camo Day and Armed Forces Day. One section suggests that to be a true hero you have to be in the Armed Forces. (credit–Emma Sangster)

While the Armed Forces claim that their activity in schools is is not recruitment, the Ministry of Defence itself states that the access they are given enables them to 'provide positive information to influence future opinion formers, and to enable recruiters to access the school environments.'[7] The Ministry of Defence have also stated that curricular activities are 'a powerful way to facilitate recruitment'.[8]

The Ministry of Defence 2011 Youth Engagement Review identifies a third outcome in addition to the defence outcomes of raising awareness and providing opportunities for recruitment – personal and social development – and recognises that fits in well with the government's agendas in other policy areas.[9]

So, whilst the UK military do not actually sign any students up within schools, it is clear that their agenda is the long-term recruitment of young people into the Armed Forces - both as supporters of the military and, for some, actual enlistment (either when they leave school at 16, or later).

Militarising education at the national policy level

Up until recently, most Armed Forces activity in schools was coordinated at a local level, between individual schools and recruitment units or cadet associations. However, military-led activities are now being integrated into national education policy on the assumption that military approaches can provide a solution to social problems. The Department for Education's 'military skills and ethos programme' encompasses expanding Cadet forces in state schools, the Troops to Teachers programme, and the cadet version of National Citizen Service; also, developing academies and free schools run by ex-military personnel or sponsored by military institutions, and 'alternative provision' with a military ethos.[10]

Alternative provision includes the Military to Mentors programme run by Skillforce, and schemes for 'pupils who are either disengaged with education or at risk of becoming disengaged ….utilising the skills of a high proportion of former armed services personnel or other staff with experience in this field of work'. A number of these schemes, such as Commander Joe's and Challenger Troop, have been set up. They work in partnership with local authorities and schools to replace school-based learning with military-style activities in uniform.

The Department for Education states that 'We associate the military with many positive values, loyalty, resilience, courage and teamwork to name but a few. We recognise that these core values, together adding up to the ‘military ethos’ can also have a positive impact on pupils.' However, this does not explain why a military framework will develop these skills more effectively than one based in other 'service' contexts. Is it what Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Eduction, has called the ‘spirit of service’ that he is keen to instil? Or is it in fact an ideological conception of the ‘military spirit’ that taps into political notions of Britishness and nationalism? Furthermore, the possibility that there may be aspects of a 'military ethos' that are not appropriate in education does not seem to have been considered. The military operate, after all, within a framework of conflict, and killing (if deemed necessary) is the reality of its business.

Two proposals which were put forward by right-wing think tanks are being encouraged by the government. The Centre for Policy Studies has proposed the establishment of free schools run entirely by ex-military staff. With a 'zero-tolerance' approach to discipline, the head teacher of one prospective free school stated that it 'will discard moral relativism and child-centred educational theory. “Self-esteem” training is out.... in.'[11] The think tank ResPublica is advocating the development of military-sponsored academies, 'officially backed by the Armed Services and delivered by the Cadet Associations'.[12] The Department for Education is currently looking to establish free schools and academies that would be run or sponsored by the military in this way.

The 'military skills and ethos' initiatives conveniently deal with a number of government concerns: they would provide ex-Armed Forces personnel with employment opportunities; they introduce an ethos based on rigid discipline which returns to a more traditional approach in line with the current government's ideology around education; and they increase the opportunities for young people to be recruited, particularly to the reserve forces. The ResPublica report described how military academies would reverse widespread 'social educational failure' over generations, using the 2011 riots to suggest that certain communities were particularly dysfunctional. Their conclusion, entitled 'Revitalising the reserves, rescuing the young, helping society', makes it clear that the need of the country to increase its pool of reserve forces is key to this education policy. Politicians from left and right who support the programme speak almost exclusively from the perspective of providing young people with life skills and opportunities, without reference to other agendas that are driving the policy. The NASUWT, the largest teaching union in the UK, has referred to the idea of military academies as 'national service for the poor'.

The educational framework

One of the characteristics of the Armed Forces' involvement in UK education establishments up until now is that their relationships with schools have been informally established, unlike in the US where the military have a legal right to visit schools. This suggests that schools have the ability to choose whether they invite the Armed Forces in or not. As initiatives to promote the military in society proliferate more generally, it is unsurprising that schools accept the Armed Forces' offer (to run activities and provide resources for their pupils) enthusiastically.

However, there is a legal framework to ensure balance and guard against political indoctrination. In particular, section 407 of the Education Act 1996 states that when discussing political issues students must be 'offered a balanced presentation of opposing views'. Developing a shared understanding that information presented by the military comes from a one-sided perspective, driven by the military's own agenda, and that alternative points of view need to be made available to young people, is a vital step towards ensuring an ethical and legal balance.

Schools are also legally required under the Children's Act 1989 to act in loco parentis, assuming a duty of care for children and acting as a 'reasonable parent'. Surely a reasonable parent would present a balanced picture to a child in their care and ensure they are provided with an understanding that allows them to make an informed choice about decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

The education system in the UK is rapidly changing. Many schools have become academies and they, and the free schools introduced by the current government, operate outside the control of the local education authority. The Department for Education is pursuing an aggressive policy of forcing other schools to become academies if they are deemed to be failing. With the introduction of military-led activities and approaches into national education policy, we may see the removal of the element of choice that schools currently have over whether or not they gives the Armed Forces access to young people on their premises. It is not clear if any young people will be forced to take part in military-led activities and what the consequences of this would be, and it remains to be seen what the impact of promoting the military within education will be for this generation of children. What is clear, however, is that for the foreseeable future, there will be more military activities within education, and that the task of challenging this will increase.


[1] Quentin Davies, Bill Clark and Martin Sharp, 'Report of Enquiry into National Recognition of our Armed Forces', May 2008. [Online at (accessed February 2013)].

[2] Hew Strachan, Tanya Armour, Pamela Healy, and Melissa Smith, 'Report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant', September 2010. [Online at (accessed February 2013)].

[3] MoD, 'Future Reserves 2020: Delivering the Nation’s Security Together', November 2012. (accessed February 2013).

[4] Simon Jenkins, '2012 Olympics: Kabul. Baghdad. London. Three to avoid this summer', The Guardian, 3 May 2012. (accessed February 2013).

[5] Stephen Armstrong, 'Britain's Child army', New Statesman, 5 February 2007. (accessed February 2013)

[6] MoD, ‘Engagement with UK schools’, 2007; 'Supplementary Memorandum from the Ministry of Defence', in House of Commons Defence Committee, Recruiting and Retaining Armed Forces Personnel, Fourteenth Report of Session, 2007-08.

[7] MoD, 'Engagement with UK schools'.

[8] Directorate of Reserve Forces and Cadets, 'Strategy for Delivery of MOD Youth Initiatives’, 2005.

[9] James Plastow, 'Youth Engagement Review: Final Report', December 2011. (accessed February 2013).

[10] See (accessed February 2013).

[11] Tom Burkard, 'Red tape is delaying the foundation of a Free School staffed by ex-military teachers', conservativehome, 3 September 2011. (accessed February 2013).

[12] Phillip Blond and Patricia Kaszynska, 'Military Academies: Tackling disadvantage, improving ethos and changing outcome, 11 January 2012. [Online at February 2013)].  

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