Youth Work and the ‘Military Ethos’

Given the widespread culture of support for the Armed Forces after their engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan it may seem difficult to discuss the question of  ‘military ethos’ in schools and also youth work, which has been placed strongly on the agenda by  Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education. Nevertheless, it is necessary that we should raise questions and debate about this from the perspective of open and democratic perspective in youth work.

The ambition to promote a ‘military ethos’ is currently presented thus on the DFE website (link):

Our ambition is for pupils to use the benefits of a military ethos, such as self-discipline and teamwork, to achieve an excellent education which will help them shape their own futures.

Promoting military ethos in schools helps foster confidence, self-discipline and self-esteem whilst developing teamwork and leadership skills. Past experience from both the military and education sector has demonstrated how these core values help pupils to reach their academic potential and become well-rounded and accomplished adults fully prepared for life beyond school.

We are already working to bring military ethos into our education system to help raise standards and tackle issues such as behaviour. This includes:

  • Expansion of the school-based cadets to create around 100 more units by 2015.
  • Delivering the Troops to Teachers programme, which aims to increase the number of Service Leavers making the transition to teaching.
  • Promoting alternative provision with a military ethos.
  • Exploring how academies and Free Schools can use their freedoms to foster a military ethos and raise standards.

The DFE is working with key charities and CICs which are enabling this work, and, as so often currently, the networks here are text book examples of what Stephen Ball has called the new heterarchies, linking philanthropy, privatisation and peripheralisation.

So, Uppingham School links with the newly constituted Havelock Academy in Grimsby  to develop a Combined Cadet Corps, in the tradition of ‘noblesse oblige’ and Public School influence which informed the origins of youth work.   The three companies with which the DFE is working – Challenger Troop, SkillForce and Commando Joes – themselves – also represent, in their governing bodies, the alliances which are driving so much educational and social policy.  Challenger Troop emerged from Kent voluntary youth services and has a strong base in the Cadets. Its partnerships are with the Police and Fire Service, as well as Housing Associations and Forestry.   Skillforce, based in Failsworth North Manchester and operating nationally, emerged from the army as part of their contribution to civil society.  The process of moving Skillforce out of the Army and establishing its independent governance has been supported by members of the Skillforce Board  who have associations with many establishment bodies such as the Church of England Southwell Minster, the Woodland Trust, and the Racial Justice Committeee of the Baptist Union. Others are the charitable representatives of finance companies JP Morgan and Price Waterhouse Cooper.  The last of the triad funded by the DFE – Commando Joes – is an American company who have not even bothered to change their website for the British market. Alongside its offer of products for primary and secondary schools, sports clubs and birthday parties, Commando Joe’s website is still proudly emblazoned with the logo ‘No Child Left Behind’, the US policy equivalent of Every Child Matters.  With the possible difference that the programmes offered by these organisations may have more emphasis on structure and discipline than much informal education in youth work, they offer much that is important and familiar as ‘outcomes’ of youth and community work processes: confidence, self-discipline, self-esteem, development of team work and leadership skills, inclusion, fun and adventure. What’s not to like?

Support for such strategies has also come from across the political spectrum and has included Labour’s Stephen Twigg as well as David Cameron’s one-time  favourite ‘think tank’ Res Publica.  Res Publica’s advocacy of ‘service schools’ is based on a view of the moral degeneracy of poverty-stricken urban areas. ‘They (service schools) would challenge the cultural and moral outlook of those currently engulfed by hopelessness and cynicism.’  Ex-service personnel can, they argue, ‘act as excellent role models for young people’ whilst cadet experience brings ‘a sense of responsibility and citizenship.’  Through the £15 million grant to the Charity Skillforce ‘an extra 100 ex-service personnel are already making a valuable contribution as mentors for young people in challenging schools and communities across England.’

Unfortunately, without in any way wishing to question the value of individual supportive relationships formed through such work both for young men and for the ex-servicemen,  the discourse of moral elevation and virtue associated with the military can not be sustained in the face of evidence concerning the actual mixed experience of military life.  The organisation Forceswatch gives a full account of and rationale for the critique of the ‘military ethos’ but, even without taking an outright pacifist stance or opposing particular mlitary deployments it is possible to argue that the classroom and youth projects are not war zones and the methods of work in each space should properly differ if we are to retain a sense of education as part of civil society and a space of democracy.

It is sadly the case also that evidence of the ‘morality’ supposedly brought to bear by ex-military personnel can only be put into question by  the levels of rape (one a week) and sexual assault within the services.  High level of violent crime, including domestic assault, as well as homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse are a matter of record. Dr Deirdre McManus’s research  (published in The Lancet in March 2013 – read here) showed that those who had served in the army were far more likely to commit violent crimes than those who had not, and those who had seen active service in Afghanistan and Iraq were 53% more likely to have committed violent crimes than non-combatants.

It seems likely that the encroachment of the military into civil society is in part related to the changing practice of actual combat and the growth of warfare using drones.  The need to redefine a  role for the army in this context has emerged also in the period since 9/11  and has been analysed by Vron Ware in ‘Military Migrants. Fighting for Your Country.’  In 1998, there was a chronic shortage of troops and only 1% of the British Army came from an ethnic minority. By 2008 the figure was 9% but, Ware demonstrates, 2/3 of these joined as Commonwealth citizens as a result of the need ‘to scour the remnants of the British Empire to find the labour force needed by the army in Afghanistan.  Soldiers from Fiji, Nepal, Gambia and Ghana and the Caribbean were to be found in Army literacy classes alongside soldiers from Dewsbury and Sunderland.  The ‘Community Covenant’ through which the Army is developing its role in civil society, through youth work projects as much as anywhere, may be above all understood as a response to the difficulty the Army has experienced in recruitment, as well as a major contributor to a re-emergent control culture in the inner urban areas.  Ware quotes a significant Army General as saying ‘If you can’t run an Army without migrants, you’re in trouble’ and the Community Covenant is a response to this trouble.

Democratic education, including youth work and informal education, needs a clear response to this network of initiatives concerned with ‘military ethos.’  This response will include an engagement with ideas of international voluntary service as a completely different practice from military service. ‘Service civile’ was introduced in many European countries after the Second World War as a peace-making alternative national military service.  We need to emphasise global connections in our practice and to strengthen emphasis on the disciplines and virtues involved in co-operation. Not only obedience but also dissent requires character, organisation and discipline, but dissident associations which can offer alternatives to the present denigration and abandonment of young people  are not likely to have a ‘military ethos.’ Militarised culture has many attractions, but adventure challenge and team-building have long been part of alternative co-operative education traditions too. On July 4th, the Youth and Community work team at MMU will be supporting a Conference organised by the Co-operative College and MMU  to discuss Co-operative Education against the Crises. It is evidently completely untrue that There is No Alternative to the ‘military ethos’ currently receiving cross-Party support.

Janet Batsleer 

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