Troops as teachers?

This post will be a little different from my usual posts in that it’s not about MOOCs, it’s UK-focussed, and also more political than usual.

The UK Government recently announced a new programme to fast track former military personnel into the teaching profession. I think it’s a bad proposal for a number of reasons. Before I go into those reasons I’ll give a little background. The scheme is aimed at those without degrees who have recently left or will shortly leave the military and they’re especially interested in those with ‘advanced technical skills’. When I was in the Army I worked repairing and maintaining air defence missile systems as a member of REME and I left without any higher education qualifications so, if this scheme had been in place then, I would have been precisely the type of person it would have been targeted towards. I went to university after leaving the forces and eventually gained a masters degree and a post-graduate teaching qualification. I’ve taught in further education, higher education and the commercial sector. My step-daughter is about to complete her PGCE and gain qualified teacher status (QTS), so the combination gives me a particular perspective on the proposal.

First of all, as a former soldier myself, I see no reason why former service personnel should not make excellent teachers. My technical training in the army was in Arborfield at what is now the School of Electronic and Aeronautical Engineering (SEAE). We were taught by senior NCOs and the basic electronics portion of my training covered a BTEC syllabus in nine months that would have taken two years at a civilian college. The teaching was well resourced and consistently excellent throughout my time there. The military know how to train well, but training doesn’t automatically conflate with education.

One problem I have with the proposal is ‘what problem is this the solution for?’ There is a issue around teacher numbers with a projected shortfall of 15,000 by the next election in 2015, but I don’t see that as the major thrust here. The publicity surrounding the announcement talks about bringing a military ethos into the school. Education minister David Laws talks about bringing “leadership, discipline, motivation and teamwork” to the classroom. Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond talks about “instil[ling] respect discipline and pride in the next generation”.

Is the lack of discipline in schools a real problem? Possibly, in limited cases, but how is that to be solved by troops becoming teachers, since they will have exactly the same disciplinary powers and discretion as those teachers already in post? Military discipline, in my experience, is not the same as that presented in the media or cultural stereotypes. The sergeant screaming into your face from six inches away is not a common occurrence in day-to-day military service. The cliché is not the reality, Military discipline, despite orders having the force of law (through the Armed Forces Act 2006, previously the Army Act 1955), is still a form of rule by consent through a strict hierarchy, and that requires all parties to acknowledge and accept the hierarchy. Military discipline functions because the answer to “jump” had better be “how high?” or else, and would that really be the case in schools? As Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, pointed out: military discipline does not equal the management of behaviour in the classroom.

Is the problem being served that of redundant service personnel? Possibly. Perhaps someone in government looked at the shortfall in teacher numbers and the numbers being made redundant and decided to join the dots. I’m all for giving help to those leaving the forces, especially those who are leaving against their wishes, but I don’t think that this scheme does that. It looks at two problems and solves neither satisfactorily. The GI Bill in the USA showed a much more enlightened (socially and economically) approach to returning service personnel.

This particular government does not have a good track record with regard to the teaching profession, receiving four votes of no confidence from unions, including the union representing the head teachers. ‘Reforms’ have come thick and fast. Schools have been removed from local democratic scrutiny through an escalation of the academies program and introduction of free schools, and are now managed by central government. The justification narrative for all this change seems to be that schools (and especially teachers) are failing our children. Unfortunately, international league tables either show the UK performing well, sixth in one study, or are criticised as statistically flawed. The Times Educational Supplement reported: “The UK Statistics Authority has censured the Department for Education and Sir Michael Wilshaw – appointed by Mr Gove as Ofsted chief inspector – for using uncertain, weak and ‘problematic’ statistics to claim that England’s schools have tumbled down the global rankings.”
Also, if teachers are really the problem, then why allow academies to employ ‘teachers’ without requiring them to actually be qualified as teachers? Accompanying this is the dismissal of educational academics as a Marxist ‘blob’ and the “enemies of promise”. The emphasis seems to be on de-skilling the practice of teaching and reducing the status of the profession. Since social mobility is low in the UK compared to other developed countries and hasn’t improved in thirty years (according to the London School of Economics) isn’t it more likely that the “enemies of promise” are those that take away those programs designed to increase social mobility, such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and Aim Higher? Oh wait, that would be the Department of Education.

Troops could make good teachers but not because of their previous profession. They would make good teachers because that particular person is suited to the demands of teaching. This scheme, this idea, seems to be the latest in a long line of bad ideas. And that’s bad for all of us.