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Parade ground to playground

The armed forces have a successful record in training young people who have been disaffected by school. As the number of former soldiers entering the classroom increases, we ask what teachers can learn from them

The armed forces have a successful record in training young people who have been disaffected by school. As the number of former soldiers entering the classroom increases, we ask what teachers can learn from them

Think of the armed forces and visions of marching, shouting and unquestioning obedience come to mind. For that reason, the average teacher might scoff at how applicable their work is to schools - although they might also welcome the prospect of using martial law on their most unruly pupils.

In fact, there is much the profession could learn from the armed forces, which is a popular career destination for those who have been bored and disaffected by school. Somehow these young people, often with limited qualifications and poor basic skills in literacy and numeracy, end up carrying out highly technical and complicated tasks in immensely stressful situations.

Politicians think soldiers have much to offer schools and want to encourage more to become teachers. Education secretary Michael Gove has said this will bring "more male role models" into teaching. He believes "the right sort of military training can have a fantastically beneficial impact on young people with a history of poor behaviour" and hopes more state schools will set up their own cadet forces.

"The very values that characterise the military, such as discipline, teamwork, respect and leadership, are central to raising standards in schools," he has said.

Mr Gove has taken inspiration from the US for his Troops to Teachers initiative (TTT). The aim of TTT is to help recruit quality teachers for schools in deprived areas, particularly those trained in shortage subjects.

Academic evaluations of the US scheme have found that principals think former soldiers work better with "problem children", parents and colleagues than teachers from a non-military background. No doubt the Department for Education hopes the English version will be equally successful.

But if Mr Gove thinks the benefit to education from services personnel comes from marching and shouting, he is mistaken - it is not that simple.

Trainers and teachers in the forces have certain advantages over those in schools. Their students have chosen to be there, they have clear and permanent punishments at their disposal and they get the chance to give young people individual attention and mentoring. But they have also developed great expertise in communicating with young people and motivating them.

A learning culture

In the UK, army teachers have PGCEs in further education. More senior teachers have a masters degree in training design. All do training in how to mentor and coach their students.

"We don't just want soldiers who can march left and turn when told - we want people who are able to think and apply what they have learnt to situations," says Colonel Lorna Swinyard, chief of staff at the Army Education and Training Service. "Even those teaching drill know how to motivate and encourage. We want to develop people and create a learning culture."

All soldiers learn professional and personal skills. They take courses in leadership and management, languages, cultural awareness and numeracy and literacy if needed. Their basic skills are assessed when they join the forces and those with special educational needs, such as dyslexia, are given individual learning plans.

The qualifications they take will all be recognised in the civilian world (see panel, page 7) and completion of training is linked to pay and promotion.

Every lesson in the army is supposed to have a practical angle. For example, a soldier who wants to be able to fire artillery has to do mathematical calculations to know what angle to fire at. According to Colonel Swinyard, this practical approach engages young people, as does the fact that their teachers are meant to be role models.

"They are all ex or serving soldiers, who can show and tell them how relevant what they are learning is - for example, they might say 'I used this when I served in Afghanistan'. Everything is made relevant," Colonel Swinyard says. "People think there are no discipline problems in the army, but there are always people who are going to be cheeky and our teachers deal with it in a mature manner.

"If a soldier was made to repeat part of their course, they would end up in a different group to their friends, which they wouldn't like. We also try to foster a sense of personal pride; they don't want to let their coach or platoon down.

"Often this means a member of their team will be the one to say 'shut up'. But we don't use martial law in the classroom. It's important soldiers have the freedom and capacity to make mistakes in that environment.

"They usually have great respect for their teacher because they know they've been there."

Former soldiers are trained by the charity SkillForce to mentor young people with behavioural problems and those at risk of exclusion. Mr Gove has asked the organisation to extend its work - 100 new mentors will be trained this academic year.

Teachers could learn a lot from the "hearts and minds" approach used by the army, says Lucinda Elliott, head of education for SkillForce. "They'll accept the progress made by a young person is positive, even if it's slow, and I think teachers should accept this, too," she says. "They also use the tool of personal identification; they make it very clear they were in the young person's shoes once. They can look students in the eyes and say how much they came to value education and what it can do for them."

David Hubbard left the RAF in October 2009 after 12 years of military service specialising in UK air defence systems. He is now a team leader for SkillForce in the Bournemouth and Solent region. Mr Hubbard says his military experience gives him and other former soldiers the "tremendous ability to speak to every student and feel comfortable in their presence".

"We've seen an awful lot of things; we've got life experience, so we are able to be strong role models. We are not easily fazed," he says. "We've served our country, travelled the world and experienced many different stressful situations while remaining calm and rational. This means we can communicate well."

Mr Hubbard's new job involves mentoring teenagers, helping them improve attendance in school and finish their education. He firmly believes teachers should make lessons as practical as they can in order to keep children engaged. Another tactic that helps disaffected children is giving them plenty of individual attention.

"In the military, you get to know your trainer and mentor really well - you are fully aware they are there for your benefit. Trust then builds up. It's more difficult for schools to do this as teachers are working with a lot more students, although some do have this kind of system in place," Mr Hubbard says.

Personality not punishment

Nigel Canning, pastoral support assistant at the Coventry Blue Coat School, joined the army at 16 and served as a mechanic for 24 years in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

He now supports the heads of Years 10 and 11, helping improve attendance, behaviour and discipline. This involves greeting children at the school gate, walking around the corridors during lesson changeovers, investigating thefts and uniform infringements, breaking up fights, tackling bullying and mentoring.

"I can speak to the children in a different way. Pupils tell me I'm more honest than teachers and speak to them as if they are human," he says. "You've got to create a legend - there's got to be something about you children are interested in. You can do this by being open and honest, by letting children get to know what you are about."

Mr Canning admits being scared when he first experienced the classroom environment. "It was an RE class and children were messing around. I identified the ring leader and found out what he was interested in," he says. "He liked The Who, so I brought one of my magazines about the band in for him to read. Having a relationship with students is vital.

"In the services, the sense of shared experience and teamwork is the core, as is integrity, loyalty and self-discipline. But in school, everyone goes home at the end of the day so you don't have the same sort of shared experience.

"Also, in the army you have ultimate sanctions such as jail and fines, which schools don't. A word you never hear in the army is 'why'."

Mr Canning says he has "not once" shouted at pupils. "They know when I'm upset because I go really quiet," he says. "The key is to be assertive, but not aggressive."

It is not just the Government that is in favour of soldiers being put in charge of classrooms. There are plans for a new free school staffed entirely by former soldiers.

Tom Burkard, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and a former soldier turned educational publisher, is on the steering committee for the school, which will open in Oldham in 2013 if it is given the go-ahead by the DfE. The intended headteacher is army captain Affan Burki. The pair say "every liberal shibboleth taught in teacher-training courses will be discarded in favour of proven methods". What they want from their staff is personality.

"The notion that the military is orderly is not true - it's often chaos. In order to get promoted, you have to work efficiently under challenging circumstances. What's important is how you react to circumstances," Mr Burkard says. "In teaching you have to think about what Ofsted is going to say if you don't spend enough time in plenary; I find this sort of education - where everyone has to teach in the same way - repugnant."

Mr Burkard does not want to put teachers in the "morally untenable" position of judging children mainly by national curriculum levels. Instead, they will rank children electronically, using multiple-choice tests on a computer that has an algorithm that can spot their ability.

He predicts it will be easy to fill posts at the school, particularly because of the redundancies planned by the Ministry of Defence. "I met one soldier planning to be a long-distance lorry driver and this made me want to weep," he says.

From all walks of life

Mr Burkard believes soldiers make good teachers because they want a "greater challenge than a nine-to-five job" and because they want employment with a moral purpose. "They already spend their lives working with young people from challenging backgrounds and they were often one, too," he says. His head of science will be an ex-Tornado pilot who has already worked in three independent schools.

"Of course, huge numbers of people in the military will make lousy teachers, but I know I can recruit better people than from a PGCE course," Mr Burkard says. "These people will have years of experience. They come from all walks of life. They will be first class."

But heads who have used former servicemen and women say teachers can be equally as inspiring. Paul Holman, vice-principal of the Bishop of Winchester Academy in Bournemouth, recruited SkillForce mentors to help children who found academic work difficult. He believes there is also much former soldiers can learn from his teachers.

He has found pupils are fascinated by the backgrounds of the mentors and have been engaged by the curriculum on offer to them, which includes outdoor pursuits and team-building exercises.

"But our PE teachers have similar skills, as they are also used to not working in a classroom environment. The SkillForce team has an informal, relaxed relationship with pupils, but you can also see that in PE and art lessons," he says.

According to Mr Holman, anyone with a background outside education is just as able as a soldier to be a role model, whether they are "teachers who have worked in the City or run outdoor pursuit centres".

Dr Simon Brownhill, education expert at Derby University, also stresses that there are many ways to win pupils' admiration.

"Personality is so important in education. If you want to encourage children, you have to sell education to them. You have to relate well to them, so they aspire to be like you," he says. "To be their role model, it helps if you are from the same geographical area, so you have an understanding of their life. If not, be interested in children and bring your subject alive."

If you are not already working with a former soldier, you soon may be. But remember, they will be be able to learn as much from you as you can from them.


Brownhill, S. The 'Brave' Man in The Early Years: examining the ambiguities of being a male role model. A paper given to the 2010 British Educational Research Association conference.


Hallam, S. Rogers, L. et al. Evaluation of SkillForce (2010). London University's Institute of Education.


Owings, W. A. et al.

Supervisor Perceptions of the Quality of Troops to Teachers Program (2005). Old Dominion University College of Education.



Army apprenticeships

Approximately 75 per cent of soldiers enrol on apprenticeships, which take between 12 and 30 months to complete. This is due to rise to 95 per cent after the infantry apprenticeship scheme is introduced. Over 12,500 soldiers are on an apprenticeship programme at any one time, with 8,000 finished successfully per year.


In 201011, around 17,000 military personnel achieved qualifications ranging from levels 1-8. Many army education and training courses are accredited by external civilian professional bodies and associations, such as the Chartered Management Institute.

Basic skills

Basic skills education is provided by specialists in literacy, numeracy, learning difficulties and teaching English to speakers of other languages. Around 5,732 soldiers started basic skills programmes in the last academic year and, to date, 4,163 National Certificates have been awarded (26.5 per cent at level 1 and 73.5 per cent at level 2).

Mandatory education

Educational provision is provided by 13 regional Army Education Centres covering 100 satellite learning centres around the world. Professional education officers teach the Command Leadership and Management programmes, taken by all corporals, sergeants and warrant officers.

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