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Dedicated to Queen and country

Will the Government's cadet plan to motivate Britain's youth be a winner? TES reporters scoured past and present for clues

Scott and Jonathan stood to attention while Victoria barked the orders. The three 11-year-olds, giving an impromptu demonstration of the drill they practice at their Sea Cadet Corps meetings at St Michael's preparatory school in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, were enjoying the military-style manoeuvres.

Like many children, they enjoy the formal, synchronised movements and the sense of ritual. They are proud of their rank - all three are Sea Cadets First Class - and look forward to the ceremonies at the twice-weekly meetings which include raising the flag and swearing allegiance to queen and country.

The dozen members of the junior section of Training Ship Implacable - the older unit is based in nearby Southend - like wearing their uniforms and, most of all, they enjoy the annual Remembrance Day parade, marching through the town with the veterans of the two world wars.

But there is more to it than square bashing. The Sea Cadets, one of many after-school activities at St Michael's, and thought to be the only one in the country for children of this age, offers training in practical skills ranging from ropework to personal safety to cookery. The cadets spend some of their time playing football and other team sports - boys and girls are treated equally - rowing and learning about life on the ocean waves. They are looking forward to a two-week camp this summer on the Thames at Cheshunt. Occasionally a ship anchors off Southend and the cadets get the chance to meet their foreign counterparts.

Head of art and technology Linda Cook, who runs the group at St Michael's, had four years in the Royal Navy, instructing Prince Charles in air traffic control among other things. She stresses the role of the cadets in developing teamwork. "They all have to work together as a team. If one makes a mistake it affects them all. They learn to think of others in the group."

Headteacher Sheila Stokes says the training offers children of all abilities the chance to excel. "It reinforces many of the values we have in school, " she says, "and it's something a child who is not particularly academically gifted can do. It's so good for them to be able to flourish in an area where brains aren't everything."

The children give various reasons for joining the group. Scott obviously goes for the military side of it. He wants to join the army when he leaves school and is already something of an expert on Napoleon. ("He was a great military tactician. It's just a shame he wasn't on our side.") But Jonathan says he likes "the sea aspect of it." Victoria is more interested in the practical skills, recalling how she was able to back-splice a rope to stop it fraying when her father put up a swing in the garden.

At this age there is no weapons training. It would not be available until much later and then, says Mrs Cook, only for carefully selected youngsters. In the light of Dunblane, the question of weapons is sensitive. The children at St Michael's show no obvious interest in learning to handle guns. The teachers agree that there is a place for weapons training for some young people under careful supervision.

Like the Boy Scouts and Guides, the Sea Cadet Corps seems to offer comradeship, adventure and know-how along with a certain amount of military hocus-pocus.

Mrs Cook says the aim is to create "rounded, well-adjusted adults who respect authority". But she balks at the idea that the cadets offer some kind of panacea for the nation's ills, as Michael Portillo seemed to suggest.

"It's like whenever the crime figures go up, there's a chorus of 'bring back national service' as if that will solve everything," she says. "But it won't. Some children really get a lot out of the cadets, but it's not for everyone. "

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