Soldiers in the classroom

10 June 2009
The Western Daily Press
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Sometimes I’ve wished I was a soldier in some of my rowdier classrooms. I could have swaggered with my rifle and my combat fatigues before the spotty teenagers who have told me where to get off and worse, and blasted them with some military discipline; asking them to do push-ups every time they sniggered, to take a cold shower every time they answered back and court-martialled them when they were flagrantly disobedient. Yes, imposing some sort of army ethics in the classroom must be every teacher’s dream at some point in their career.

Now it appears that the Tories are willing to go one step further and actually put the military in our classrooms. Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove says that the Tories wants lots more ex-servicemen to go into teacher training. He wishes to ensure that “ex-servicemen and women who want to work with young people in need can move quickly to a career in teaching." Intrigued by this idea, I spoke to him about it and he explained his thinking. Enthused by the success of a scheme called Skillsforce, which puts army personnel into a number of schools throughout the country to work with motivating disadvantaged and demotivated kids, Gove is now aiming to put trained officers in the classroom, if the Conservative party is elected. He said to me: “The project has had great success with excluded kids, getting them motivated and interested in learning. Officers in the army have all sorts of psychological techniques for motivating troops. All ideas that can deployed in the classroom.”

I have some sympathy with these thoughts; soldiers could, if trained properly, make education very exciting for certain kids, bringing to bear all their experience of extreme situations and different cultures. They also know about “training”; drilling people to do things so that they become second nature to them.

However, having come across a few ex-servicemen during my time as a teacher, I have found that they have all struggled to cope. The army is very different from school; soldiers have to be trained to deal with life or death situations. Disobedience has to be stamped upon immediately with the most severe punishments. Discussion or questioning of orders is largely forbidden because it has to be; no soldier in the context of battle can start ruminating about the validity of a superior’s orders. In stark contrast, the best schools are the ones where discussion and questioning is at the very heart of learning. The best teachers do not drill their children but provoke their curiosity, their desire to question the world around them; the best teachers do not ‘train‘, they inspire learning. As a result, all of the veterans I have seen teach have hated it when their orders have been ignored, questioned, sneered at, disregarded and become very frustrated when they’ve found that the punishments meted out at school are pathetic compared with what the army dishes out routinely.

When I challenged Gove that having officers barking orders at kids could be very alienating, he countered, “We’re not talking about sending kids to boot camp in school, or getting them to frog march around the classroom.” Maybe not, but he has to accept that soldiers are “taught” in a very different way from children.

Furthermore, there is something profoundly troubling about trying to bring a military ethos into schools; it smacks a little too much of military states where children are brainwashed into obedience and becoming cannon fodder. Having interviewed a number of pupils from Africa and the Middle East who have been educated at such schools, I realised just how scary this situation is; pupils are not taught to think schools but to blindly conform to the strict military codes. Swamping the schools in our poor areas with soldiers could have this effect; it may bring a degree of order but it could also foster a more worrying culture of militarism.

Putting lots of soldiers in our classrooms sounds like a good idea on the surface, but there are profound problems with it. The last thing we need now amidst all this economic gloom is for Britain to start turning into a military state. What our schools really need is good teachers — from all sorts of backgrounds — who subscribe to key ideals that make inspirational teachers; stimulating our children’s imaginations, their curiosity, their desire to learn. Some soldiers may be able to do this, but so can lots of other teachers. In our desperation to restore order to our blighted classrooms, let’s not resort to desperate solutions. Good discipline is not the enemy of the imagination; we need artists, creators, scientists in our classrooms, not jack boots.

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