Labour should not idealise the nature of the military, by Calum Sherwood

Today the Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy and the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg unveiled in an article for The Telegraph their support for broader involvement of the military in the British education system. The article acts as a clarion call for a mass “invasion” of schools by the military, and articulates their belief that civilians should adopt a “service ethos” which can be cultivated in our nation’s education.

Murphy and Twigg call for the establishment of military academies in “communities with the greatest social and economic need” and more involvement of local cadet forces in extracurricular activities for deprived areas. The logic of their proposal asserts deprivation and a supposed lack of aspiration can be remedied with military discipline and an idolisation of the military as an institution. This simplistic analysis fails to realise the problems in these communities lie not with aspiration, but that deprivation is the cause which forces many young working-class people into the military in the first place.

Murphy and Twigg claim that military veterans can serve as role models for ‘troubled youth’, but fail to point out that 10% of the current prison population are ex-military, and many suffer from mental, physical and substance abuse issues after leaving the force. This is not to demonise those who have served in the military, but rather to point out that the military itself is not an institution which corrects society’s ills in a vacuum. Many of those who will leave the force for the worse come from the kind of communities Murphy and Twigg claim are in need of military academies, communities which still face the kind of deprivation and lack of opportunity when they joined the force originally.

It is incredibly dangerous for Labour to make the link between community spirit and an institution which sends a disproportionately high number of working-class men and women to their deaths from these same communities. Glorifying conflict through desensitising young people to the realities of the military’s primary function, which is to engage in combat, sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the education system and the values which children take away from their time in school. Labour must challenge the conflict consensus through education, promoting the history of peaceful activism and warn of the horrors of war, rather than idealising the nature of the military and its purpose.

Labour would be far better to promote the same values of public spirit and community activism Murphy and Twigg asserts their proposal aims to embody through positive institutions, such as the NHS, which save lives rather than end them. There can be no greater army in Britain than the legion of doctors, nurses and health professionals who serve our country as our first line of defence against illness and death. Investing in communities, in the health service, in schools, and redeveloping our nation’s industry are solutions to the problems Murphy and Twigg believe can be resolved through sending military officials to run our schools. Military role models, like Nicola Murray’s Fourth-Sector Pathfinders in The Thick Of It, cannot ‘inspire’ people out of poverty.

It is incredibly important for young people in disadvantaged communities to feel part of society, but Labour would be better to stay clear of believing this occurs through an institution which tears societies apart. Murphy and Twigg claim their aim is to ensure “there is mutual support before and after military service” in these communities, but this does not occur by normalising the military in education. It comes about by providing jobs for people, rooted in their communities and families, not abroad fighting foreign wars. Public service doesn’t have to be about donning a uniform and a gun, but about building a sustainable future for your community.

By Calum Sherwood


The end of History? Dan Smith on Gove’s academies

Last year, 159 secondary schools failed to enter a single pupil for GCSE History. Academic debate has focussed on how best to stem the decline of history teaching and a chorus of critics – including Chris Skidmore, David Starkey and Niall Ferguson– have sought to discredit the National Curriculum. “We are facing a situation,” warns Skidmore, Tory MP and historian, “where history is at risk of dying out.”

The chief cheerleader of reform has been Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who contends that the National Curriculum neglects our national history and “most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England.”

Critics essentially want a history of nationalistic masturbation that ignores awkward truths and reflects the Tory tradition of Euro-scepticism rather than the academic tradition of critical analysis. Yet as Richard J.Evans has demonstrated, the decline of history is not due to a shift in teaching methods, but instead due to the introduction of league tables in the 1990s. Both primary and secondary schools are focussed on compulsory subjects – such as English, maths and science – at the cost of subjects such as history. Whilst primary schools dedicate only 4% of class time to history, secondary schools would rather concentrate on subjects where better GCSE results can be achieved.

According to Evans, the biggest threat to history teaching doesn’t come from the curriculum, “it comes from the academies … which are free from local authority control and don’t have to follow the National Curriculum”. Last year, just 20% of academy students took GCSE history and “as academies spread further … the teaching of history really will be in crisis.”

It is not simply the case that history is being dropped to gerrymander league tables and placate the demanding parents of academy school pupils – the problem runs much deeper than that. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in the New Statesman:

“Michael Gove is quietly presiding over the biggest shake-up of England’s schools since the Second World War – there are now 1,529 academy schools, outside local government control, compared to 200 when the coalition came to power. They’ve been joined by 24 so-called free schools, set up by parents, charities and other unelected groups”

The education sector in the UK is worth an estimated £2bn – so no wonder corporations are eager to have a piece of the pie. Earlier this year, the Swedish company IES UK was awarded a £21m contract to manage a free school in Suffolk to be known as IES Breckland (I eagerly await Stelios Haji-Ioannou opening the first EasySchool). Furthermore, David Bell – former top civil servant in the Department of Education – says “he sees “no principled objection” to profit-making companies taking over state schools and believes they will “probably” be allowed to do so eventually.”

As Seumas Milne wrote recently, “schools are being bribed or bullied into becoming freestanding academies outside local democratic control, many sponsored or run by private companies.” The problem with academies is not just the profit-motive – or the creation of a postcode lottery – it is the influence corporations and businesses have over the syllabus.

“Academies are less accountable, less transparent, less locally integrated and less open to parental involvement than local authority schools,” argues Milne, “companies that run them can bend the curriculum to their whim.”

But why shouldn’t we want businesses determining the history syllabus? Well, like the historians and academics arguing for a return to “children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens”, their dispute is saturated with self-interest and a need to re-write inconvenient truths. History is riddled with corporate collusion in totalitarianism and oppression. From IBM’s implication in the Holocaust to Coke Cola and Apple’s violation of workers’ rights in Latin America and China – these are the lessons you won’t learn in a corporate academy.

Academies are not designed to empower communities, they are designed to empower corporations. The chief threat to history teaching – and education as a whole – is not simply how the subject is taught but who controls the curriculum. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”. The rise of academies deepens the reach of corporations in our cultural and educational milieu and opens to door to unprecedented historical revisionism. This is a lesson we have to learn, before it’s too late.