Armed Forces Day and other ways of manufacturing consent

Militarism continues to creep into schools and colleges and further embed military approaches and interests within the education system.

North Wales Armed Forces Day

Disrupting the message at North Wales Armed Forces Day, 20 June 2015. Photo: Wrexham Peace and Justice Forum.

A year ago we wrote how Armed Forces Day symbolises the creep of militarism into our civil institutions. Far from being merely a reflection of public respect, this creep is the result of a concerted effort, which can be tracked through policy initiatives and is fuelled by concern that the military are losing control of the public narrative around defence.

Armed Forces Day itself comes out of the Government report of 2008, National Recognition of our Armed Forces, which sets out to establish a host of 'countervailing measures' to shore up support for the forces eroded by recent conflicts.

We noted how these public displays, which are ostensibly about supporting 'the men and women who make up the Armed Forces', (including Camo Day, Reserves Day and the Poppy Appeal), act to market the military as an institution and to build a positive and uncritical narrative around it and support its recruitment needs.

A year, and another Armed Forces Day, later, we look here at how militarism continues to creep into schools and colleges and how recent developments further embed military approaches and interests within the education system.

The Department for Education's promotion of 'military ethos' in schools

The government recently announced that, under its Cadet Expansion Programme, 100 new cadet units have been set up in state schools. A new target of 500 more units has now been set for 2020. External agencies run by former armed forces personnel providing 'alternative provision' in education have recently seen their funding boosted as the 'military ethos' is heralded as 'character' building.

While such provision was originally aimed at children at risk of failing, these agencies are also providing whole-school or whole-class activities, are present in primary as well as secondary schools (see Commando Joe and Challenger Troop), and are being used by schools to generally support teachers with discipline issues.

Another part of the 'military ethos' vision is the development of academies and free schools sponsored by part of the military. Although no such school has yet been set up (despite a failed attempt at the Pheonix School in Oldham), a number of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which offer specialist education for 14-18 year olds, are sponsored by part of the Army or Navy.

The arms industry also sponsor UTCs, and have recently taken over a failing academy. These defence interests will have significant influence on the ethos and direction of the school or college and will have direct access to students within them.

We estimate that over £45 million of Department for Education (DfE) funding has gone into 'military ethos' projects, including the Troops to Teachers scheme which fast-tracks ex-forces into the profession, since the policy was announced in 2012. This is in addition to the £180 million each year that the MoD spend on running the Combined Cadet Force in schools. This money, most of which comes from the DfE's budget, is being diverted from non-military activities on the basis of very little evidence that it is any more effective than any equally well resourced projects.

Military-related learning materials

The past year has also seen the DfE promote The British Armed Forces Learning Resource to every school. This 'learning resource' was produced by the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister's Office. It features texts by ministers (including the Prime Minister) and high ranking military chiefs. It is a glossy promotional tool and has been criticised by educationalists and others for its poor quality learning materials and politically motivated, biased content.

Schools were also sent materials about the NATO summit in Cardiff in September 2014, the annual British Legion remembrance pack and were encouraged by the DfE to 'celebrate' VE Day. In addition to the routine curriculum support that the armed forces offer schools (and the careers presentations and development activities), the Army also now offer resources about the First World War, send 'soldiers to schools' to support teachers with the curriculum and place a soldier on each coach of school children visiting WW1 battlefields.

Armed Forces Day school resources – an attempt at brainwashing

School resources for Armed Forces Day are also available. The primary school assembly presentation briefly looks at the role of the armed forces during a civil war or a natural disaster, but nothing else. The teachers' notes for the secondary school assembly presentation state that it, 'draws students’ attention to the work of our Armed Forces and to the choices that the men and women in the Armed Forces have made: to join, serve their country, and do the right thing to protect the UK and help people in need across the world.

The Assembly is designed to be a starting point for your school, to inspire students and to lead on to further activities and local events. Before delivering the Assembly, work with colleagues to plan some other activities that will help students to learn more about our Armed Forces and to consider how they might like to celebrate their work'.

Both presentations display a wholly sanitised image of military activities and are economical with the truth to the extent that they are extremely misleading. The resources talk of 'promoting', 'celebrating', and 'being a part of' the armed forces and Armed Forces Day.

Despite describing the resources as encouraging 'Independent enquirers', 'Creative thinkers (who) question their own and others’ assumptions' and 'Effective participators (who) discuss issues of concern', these resources contain no content that would facilitate these learning activities or any degree of critical thinking, except perhaps by students who can critique these resources for what they are – attempts at brainwashing.

War as 'fun for all the family'

Armed Forces Covenant, recognised in law in 2011, and setting out the 'moral obligation' between the armed forces, the government and the country, is embedding public support for the military within civilian institutions.

'In creating a framework for removing disadvantage in housing, healthcare, education, deployment and other areas, the government has also created a mechanism whereby local authorities, business, educational, charities and community organisations are morally obliged to honour the forces. The Armed Forces Community Covenant, while being a 'voluntary statement' of support, has been signed by almost every local authority in the UK.

Covenants are signed by the council and often numerous partner agencies; the voluntary sector and other local organisations are then encouraged to show support. Many local authorities have appointed an 'Armed Forces Champion' or dedicated council officer to oversee services to that one community.'

Many councils now feel obliged to demonstrate the support they have pledged under the Covenant through public displays. In 2014, the local Armed Forces Champion for Wrexham stated that, 'We have planned an event that has at its core the obligations of the Armed Forces Covenant... In addition to military displays, marches and entertainment there are also numerous veterans associations present that can and indeed do help the needs of ex-forces personnel and their families.'

By default, and in order to get public interest, many of these displays are billed as 'family fun' or have an entertainment element. Only a very few of the 200+ events listed on the Armed Forces Day website question the celebratory tone of the day. This year's event for North Wales (held on 20 June in Colywn Bay) was presented as 'fun for all the family' and featured the usual military vehicles and weapons designed to entice young people, and cadet and armed forces careers marketing to recruit them.

'Armed forces-friendly' educational institutions

In addition to the Community Covenant, the Armed Forces Corporate Covenants has now been signed by over 500 companies, charities and other organisations including schools, colleges and the National Association of Head Teachers who, amongst other things, pledge to 'actively participate in Armed Forces Day'. The Academies Enterprise Trust, the largest multi-sponsor of academies in the UK, has pledged to not only participate in Armed Forces Day, but also to support the government policy of 'military ethos' in schools and the Cadet Expansion Programme. Each signing organisation must promote itself as 'armed forces-friendly' and advertise this, in addition to a number of measures that more directly support service families.

In another year we could see many more parts of the education system pledge in perpetuity to be 'armed forces-friendly' and many more schools embrace 'military ethos' activities. As this article explores, the change of government is only likely to entrench these policies, particularly as, with a few exceptions, politicians of all colours are 'on (pro-military) message'.

With the military embedded into parts of the education system and its message promoted by schools themselves, a growing number of young people are coming into contact with this pro-military message in their daily lives.

That this is happening within education, which is charged with acting in the best interests of students and developing their critical awareness, is very worrying, particularly when there is strong evidence that it is the youngest recruits, from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are most at risk of being killed or suffering mental health problems through involvement in warfare.

How will military involvement in schools and the public celebration of the armed forces, affect the space that young people have for critical thinking about war and its effects and alternatives to armed conflict? Lets take action now and not wait around to find out.

Source: Forces Watch

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