Monday, 22 June 2015

Should the military recruit in Welsh schools?

(Pic : The Telegraph)
Last Friday, the National Assembly's Petitions Committee published a report (pdf) on a petition submitted by Cymdeithas y Cymod, which gathered a total of 1,074 signatures online and offline.

The petition called for the National Assembly to "urge the Welsh Government to recommend that the armed forces should not be allowed to recruit in schools".

The Committee made 3 recommendations,
also summarised by Daily Wales :
  • The Welsh Government should consider researching the reasons why the military disproportionately visit schools in areas of high deprivation.
  • The Welsh Government should review curriculum elements on work, taking into account the military's unique aspects as a career, and should encourage an "open and honest" exchange with pupils on the military's role.
  • The Welsh Government should give consideration to encouraging a wider range of businesses and employers to visit schools to provide careers information.

The Reasoning for the Petition

Here are some of the key arguments the petitioners and their supporters used to support their case :
  • You can legally join the armed forces at age 16. No other NATO member state recruits 16-year-olds, and doing so flies in the face of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child calls for the UK to stop the practice. In international law, under-18s are categorised as "child soldiers", though the British military don't send under-18s into combat.
  • Schools in deprived areas were visited 50% more often than schools in other areas. 74% of state schools in Wales (and only 29% of independent schools) were visited by the three services in 2010-11 and 2011-12, compared to 85% of state schools in Scotland and just 30% of state schools in London.
  • Violent aspects of military careers aren't properly presented, and instead offer an "exciting picture for school children". The Childrens Commissioner said the armed forces have a responsibility to present a "balanced and accurate picture".
  • A report from 2013 (pdf) suggests younger recruits (especially those from deprived backgrounds) are more likely to experience PTSD, develop substance abuse problems and act violently when de-mobilised. In response, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) claim suicide rates are lower and, in a whole population context, PTSD rates are no different.

Recruitment Visits

Pupils at Prestatyn High School expressed support for military visits,
but wondered why other employers didn't do the same thing.
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales via Flickr)
The military establishment claim they don't "recruit" during school visits, and will only visit if requested by a member of staff. The Reserve Forces & Cadets Association also say the armed forces don't recruit, but instead visit schools so pupils can take part in various organised activities.

The petitioners believe these visits and activities directly relate to recruitment, including activities such as presentations on the armed forces' work, outdoor team-building exercises, even mock interviews.

The then Deputy Minister for Skills, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), wrote to the Committee saying that restricting armed forces visits may "disadvantage some young people as they will not have access to information about a wide range of careers". These sentiments were echoed by
Merthyr Tydfil Council, the teaching union UCAC (to an extent - they would prefer a ban on under-18 recruitment but no ban on military school visits) and the WLGA. In fact, there seemed to be very little support for restricting military visits amongst education professionals on the whole.

Pupils from Prestatyn High School were asked their opinions during a committee away day and were mostly positive, saying they didn't feel they were "being recruited" at such events and the military should have a right to visit schools. Their main reservations were that 16 might be too young to consider a military career, and although they were comfortable asking questions to recruiters, they should be able to ask "searching questions" on difficult aspects of military life.

There was also criticism from pupils and staff that other employers don't visit schools as often – particularly big public sector employers like the NHS.

Targeting Areas of Deprivation

The petitioners' argument is that (and I quote), "Obviously, as a poor country, Wales is targeted by the Army."

It was left to a consultee, Forces Watch, to provide more of the meat (which I noted earlier) whereby state schools are more likely to be visited by the three services than independent schools, with state schools in deprived areas more likely to be visited further still. Merthyr Tydfil Council believe there was no evidence from their experience that deprived schools in their area were being targeted.

The Committee conclude that although there's evidence that the military disproportionately visits schools in areas of high deprivation, there's no evidence recruiters are deliberately targeting these schools, and denying the military opportunities to visit schools could limit deprived pupils' chances of following what could be a rewarding career.

Military Ethos & Educational Attainment of Recruits

Are military activities in schools - like the one above - the only
way to instill leadership and teamwork in children?
(Pic :
The UK Government are actively trying to bolster the military's influence in schools, providing £11million to expand cadet forces into state schools, "to develop teamwork, self-discipline, resilience and leadership". Forces Watch say the UK Department of Education provide no reasoning for why a military ethos would provide these things over a civilian ethos.

Again, the petitioners make a pretty bold claim that standards of literacy and numeracy education are lower in the armed forces when compared to wider society. This claim was expanded upon by other consultees to mean that new recruits won't achieve standard GCSEs (presuming they haven't got them) and will instead gain similar qualifications (a literacy/numeracy certificate).

There was no direct mention of the armed forces in the report the petitioners cite (pdf - p84). It does mention the inadequacy of the "functional qualifications" new recruits who lack basic English and maths skills have to take - although they're said to be "quite useful for some post-16 learners". So I had to look up something different. This UK Department of Business, Industry and Skills report on vocational education in the armed services from 2012 (pdf) says (p32) :
"The Armed Forces Literacy and Numeracy Policy is effective: it provides a statement of high level support for literacy and numeracy improvement and development, an essential element in ensuring a Whole Organisation Approach to literacy and numeracy provision. There is clear evidence of a high record of achievement in literacy and numeracy; a strong culture of training and development; and the Services are strongly committed to supporting personnel with literacy and numeracy needs."
On new recruits (p33) :
"The Armed Services have the capacity to develop the skills and talents of recruits with low literacy and numeracy to the point that they are both operationally effective and (more) employable within Service and in civilian life. Evidence from this study confirms that continuing (selectively) to recruit entrants with low level skills need not be detrimental to operational performance."

That doesn't line up with the petitioners' claims.

It was accepted that the National Assembly doesn't have legislative control over defence, but there were calls from supporters of the petition for AMs to either "truly represent the interests and values of the people of Wales" or "simply serve other interests" - meaning they should push through a military ban based on moral arguments alone. In their evidence submission (pdf), they even issue a veiled threat to publicly embarrass AMs if they fail "to take action where they should". Proof positive that "peaceful" doesn't mean "nice".

So not only have the petitioners partially misled the Committee on the educational attainment of recruits, some supporters have gone so far as attempting to emotionally blackmail AMs into doing something unconstitutional.

That's not the Petitions Committee's fault, but I can see now why they don't publish many reports. Their recommendations are, fortunately, perfectly reasonable and measured. Regardless of my own opinion on military school visits, if I were in their shoes I would've lost patience pretty quickly.


The military can not only provide a stable career, but a trade to use when leaving the service
- that doesn't meant military recruiters should go into schools as they do currently.
(Pic : Royal Navy)

I should declare an interest in that my family (both sides) has an extensive military background. I still have relatives who are in the armed forces and one of them is involved in recruitment. That doesn't mean I'm not allowed to have my own opinion on this (before I'm disowned) and no nationalist - not even at the top of Plaid Cymru - can, with a straight face, accuse me of not being a true believer.

I know there are out and out pacifists sitting on the Petitions Committee, let alone supporting the petition, but it's likely that even if Wales were independent, and the role of a Welsh military changes from that of the UK military, it would remain a legitimate career move (I completely re-wrote my posts on defence in 2016, following on from my posts on foreign policy in 2015 : Wales & The World VII - Foreign Policy & Defence).

Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future there is no Welsh military. My issue isn't that the military are going into schools to hold team-building exercises or inform pupils about military careers. My issue is that the three services, but the army in particular, still recruit people into the full-time military before they're 18.

Are military visitors not being entirely honest about their intentions when they go into schools? Maybe, and it's worth investigating further.
I'm not convinced, however, that recruiters are going into schools with forms for pupils fill out or to take their oath to Betty Windsor – that's what I would define as "military recruitment".

The semantics of what counts as "recruitment" aside, it is right to ban the military from going into schools for non-educational reasons, but not to ban them from providing careers advice to under-18s. Why not have an organised season of careers fairs at central locations, involving as many stalls for national and local employers as possible – including the military – in the weeks before or after GCSE and A-Level exams? I don't see why employers (of any sort) should be obliged to visit each and every secondary school in Wales (over 200), which is simply impractical.

This petition also demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the military does; it isn't all about guns 'n' bombs. Statistically, construction, farming and fishing are more dangerous than the armed forces and many careers - like farming, veterinary medicine and medicine - have just as much evidence of being a causal factor in mental illness. Military trades training, during peacetime at least, can also be as good as any apprenticeship.

My father's own military training has led to civilian careers in telecomms, electrical engineering and aerospace. A military career opens doors as you can demonstrate teamwork and leadership, often backed by respected qualifications - and, for the most part, you'll be looked after while you're in uniform. That sort of thing is invaluable for kids who've been failed by the education system.

As unpalatable as it sounds, I wouldn't blame any boys or girls, who grow up in areas blighted by deindustrialisation, from turning to the armed forces as an "employer of last resort" to avoid finding themselves on a human scrapheap. You can only really understand it if you've been in that position yourself. It should be different, but it isn't and it's not changing any time soon. It's certainly nothing to be proud of either.

Infantry roles that are exclusively about combat don't prepare personnel for life outside the military because they often don't learn a transferable trade - there's little demand for machine gunners and mortar launchers in civilian life. As these positions are amongst the few jobs around that don't require formal qualifications, it's not improbable that these are the roles recruits from deprived areas take up in greater numbers (AMs demand action to close education gap). So if there's going to be research on this, it's also worth researching which roles young recruits take up and what progress they make in their careers.

As a side note, I've said before that e-petitions are one of the great innovations since devolution, but this petition highlights one of the weaknesses of the system : people with an ideological or emotional interest in a cause can't be 100% relied upon to provide evidence to a high enough standard. I've had a glance through the meeting transcripts and this is something committee members picked up on - in particular Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) and the Committee Chair, William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales).

It may sound as though I've been over-critical of the petitioners. That's not because of their intentions - which were perfectly noble - but because of the way they've approached this. The whole thing appears to have been based on conjecture. If Forces Watch hadn't responded to the call for evidence in the thorough manner they did, the petitioners' contributions were so insufficient (and loaded) that AMs and Assembly staff would've been drafting a report without the information they need to make a proper judgement.

Coincidentally, the Petitions Committee are consulting on the future of the e-petitions system, and you can fill out a survey here.

UPDATE : 25/08/2015

The National Assembly are due to debate the report on September 23rd September 30th.

In anticipation, Forces Watch – who provided the quantitative evidence for the inquiry – have published a new briefing in order to help inform that debate (read here – pdf). The updated report includes new information :
  • A higher rate of military school visits in south Wales valley authorities, in particular Rhondda Cynon Taf, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.
  • The briefing cites a Cardiff University study which shows many youngsters in the Valleys see the military as "an employer of last resort" as they have few alternatives, meaning there's better value for money (for military recruiters) to visit schools in deprived areas. Forces Watch believe the Welsh Government should commission further research to link the frequency of school visits to the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation.
  • There's anecdotal evidence from teachers that the armed forces have used educational days (like numeracy tasks) to offer careers advice. Even some military recruiters are said to have expressed unease. Therefore, there needs to be greater scrutiny of the material used in military school visits in order to avoid presenting an unbalanced picture of military life.
  • Although other "dangerous occupations" – such as the emergency services – do make school visits, they usually don't do so for careers reasons. The military is unique in that it can deploy substantial resources solely for recruitment.
  • The MoD definition of "recruitment" is very narrow, and recruitment is said to be an ongoing process, not a single event. Military visits are often plugged to teachers/schools as being about careers and skills in order to get invites. Previous MoD guidance on school visits has said, in no uncertain terms, that the overall aim is recruitment.

That's not necessarily enough to change my opinion, and I can pretty much guess what's going to be said at the Assembly debate already – though I'm glad more hard evidence has been produced.

If you are concerned about military recruitment in schools, Forces Watch are encouraging people to contact their Assembly Members prior to the debate with a link to the briefing. You can find the contact details of your AM here.


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