Demobbed soldiers in the classroom: a deeply nostalgic policy
The education secretary, Michael Gove, is seeking to put more ex-soldiers in the classroom. He has outlined plans in his education white paper for the taxpayer to fund ex-army personnel to be trained as teachers. The subtext of his plans is that our classrooms are so out of control that drastic military action is called for; we need more of a “boot camp” mentality in our namby-pamby schools.
First, let’s make it clear that any notion our schools are in such uproar that we need military intervention is false; Ofsted judges seven out of 10 of them to be good or outstanding, with behaviour in the vast majority of them being good. You only have to log onto the Local Schools Network, a website I co-founded with some parents, to read countless stories of well-disciplined local state schools.
Second, as teacher who has taught for 20 years in various comprehensives, I have some major concerns about “militarising” our classrooms. At a previous school, I observed an ex-soldier really struggle to cope with the demands of teaching in a mixed comprehensive. He had gone into the classroom expecting all his students to obey his every word. When they didn’t, he would bark at them in a sergeant-majorish way, putting his face right into theirs, spraying spit and fury over their heads. The more timid pupils would cower and simper, often bursting into tears, while the hardened ones would smirk and laugh at him, some even telling him to fuck off, stoking even more anger.
Even though he shouldn’t have been so aggressive, he couldn’t help himself. He told me that the privates did not often step out of line, and if they did, they suffered greatly; the army has punitive sanctions that you can’t apply in schools. “We had to train them up to be prepared to die at our command,” he said. “You simply couldn’t allow them to think for themselves.” I feel this comment more than any other highlights a central problem with putting demobbed soldiers in our classrooms: in the military, independent thought can be fatal, whereas in schools, it’s absolutely crucial.
The truth is that this is a deeply nostalgic policy, harking back to the two previous wars of the last century when demobbed soldiers entered our classrooms in their droves. But they were very different times; only a tiny fraction of the school population went to university and corporal punishment was rife. Times have moved on, but sadly Gove and his miserable policies have not.