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Controversial plans to radically expand military cadet corps in English state secondary schools are being pushed forward by Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary, apparently backed by No 10. The plans were the idea of Quentin Davies, a Labour MP who defected from the Tories last year, and come on the back of a government-commissioned review of “civil and military relations”.
Learning military drill and shooting are two of the core elements of the cadet programme. But anti-gun campaigners say that teaching teenagers to shoot would simply exacerbate the growing problem of gun crime among young people.
The government has been repeatedly claiming that it is “getting tough” on guns and youth crime, but how can this be consistent with encouraging weapons training in schools?
At the moment, just 60 of the school-based Combined Cadet Force (CCF) are based in comprehensive schools, with 200 forces currently in private and grammar schools; this is despite these being just 10% of schools in England. Under the new proposals, state schools that do not set up a cadet system will encourage pupils to attend a community cadet force instead. There are currently over 130, 000 young people involved in the cadet forces, between the ages of 12 and 18.
Defence ministers deny that the cadet forces are in any way a recruitment tool. However, between a quarter and a third of all army personnel are ex-cadets, and the cadets’ £82 million yearly budget, straight from the MoD, would suggest more than just a hint of vested interest.
This then, is only the latest in a series of attempts by the government to improve its falling recruitment levels. There is currently a projected 10% shortfall in troop numbers, and this should be no surprise. This comes at a time when growing opposition to the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is, for many, causing further disillusionment with the MoD. It is also becoming increasingly evident that the treatment and housing of many soldiers is abysmal, and shortages of often vital equipment are frequent.
Give me a child
In their desperation to gain new recruits, the army is looking increasingly to schools. Pro-army lesson plans were released by the MoD at the start of this academic year, published by the marketing agency Kids Connections – despite the fact that they are required by law to treat political issues in a balanced way and to avoid partisan views. MoD teams currently visit 1000 schools a year, reported Brigadier Andrew Jackson, commander of the MoD recruiting group. He also declared that the aims of these visits were definitely not to recruit, but to “raise the general awareness of the armed forces in society” and to “inform young people about the tremendous work and careers on offer”. Well, in that case…
This is happening in spite widespread and growing opposition. Recently, the NUT passed a motion condemning military recruitment and input in schools, as did the EIS, the Scottish teaching union. In January, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a damning report on the tactics of the MoD and their targeting of young people, showing how recruiters “glamorised” army service, and omitted to mention its risks.
It is also worth noting that it was Britain that added the clause to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, stating that “they would not exclude the deployment of under 18’s if there was a genuine military need to deploy their unit or ship”. Britain is also the only country in Europe that even allows 16-17 year olds into the army, though (for now!) they cannot be deployed overseas until they are 18.
If the government truly wants more people to seriously consider a career in the armed forces, it will have to accept that waging illegal wars against the will of the people of Britain, coupled with appalling treatment of the soldiers that they do have, underlie the problems they have with recruitment. The answer is neither more cadets, nor further military interference in the education system. And if the government really wants young people to have more opportunities outside of school, it should be promoting and investing in organisations such as the Woodcraft Folk and World Challenge, that don’t encourage a militaristic lifestyle or the use of guns. Quentin Davies’ proposals are unjustifiable – both ethically and practically, and must be treated as such.
Tali Janner-Klausner is active in School Students Against War, http://www.ssaw.co.uk