When hard-to-reach children fall in line

30th May 2014 at 01:00
They make progress in lessons with former soldiers, study finds

Students at risk of being excluded from school respond positively to a "military-style" education delivered by former soldiers, research suggests.

Politicians in the UK and the US have leaped upon the idea of getting soldiers into schools, with both countries adopting Troops to Teachers programmes that train ex-military personnel for the classroom. Now a study by the University of London's Institute of Education has found that pupils struggling at school respond positively to lessons led by former soldiers.

Professor Susan Hallam examined SkillForce, an initiative that is working with more than 5,000 primary and secondary pupils in 200 schools across the UK. Ex-military staff take hard-to-reach students out of timetabled lessons once or twice a week, and use hands-on approaches to teach traditional subjects such as maths or science, alongside life skills designed to encourage resilience and discipline.

Researchers surveyed more than 250 students and found that two-thirds had better relationships with their teachers as a result of the programme. Around half said their attendance had risen, while 55 per cent said their schoolwork had improved.

"The personal skills of the students were reported to have improved by teachers, particularly concentration and self-confidence," Professor Hallam said. "Less academic children were given the opportunity to succeed and all the children developed resilience in the face of failure. There were reported improvements in self-discipline, communication and listening skills."

Phil Hind, a SkillForce instructor who spent 24 years in the Army Air Corps and completed tours of duty in the first Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan, believes that his background helped to engage students.

"I work in a pupil referral unit and we try to give them a positive role model," Mr Hind said. "Being a former soldier means they look at you differently. It maybe makes it a bit easier for us to engage them than it would for a normal teacher because we're from the military and have a different story to tell."

According to SkillForce, about three-quarters of its school instructors have military backgrounds. The charity said its approach was not a "boot camp" that involved shouting and drills - staff do not wear uniforms, for example, but they emphasise the discipline and teamwork encouraged by the army.

More than nine in 10 of the pupils questioned by researchers said they enjoyed the type of education offered by the initiative, with eight in 10 saying it led to greater respect for other people.

The study also shows that school staff believe the programme raises older pupils' career aspirations and boosts the "social climate" of the classroom. England's education secretary Michael Gove is eager for state schools to emulate the private sector by introducing cadet forces; he is also a champion of Troops to Teachers, an initiative that started in the US.

Meanwhile, the idea of teaching resilience to young people is becoming increasingly popular in countries such as the UK and Australia. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has called for "positive psychology" lessons to become a part of school timetables. He told a summit held at Wellington College in Berkshire last year that techniques used by the US military to prepare soldiers to cope with war should be adopted by schools to build resilience in children.

Kingsway Primary School in Goole, Yorkshire, was part of the initial SkillForce pilot scheme. Headteacher Liam Jackson said it had led to marked improvements in students' behaviour and academic performance.

"It offers things that schools can't do on the curriculum; the army ethos such as camping, first aid and survival techniques," he said. "And although the staff don't wear army clothes, the children develop a real respect for them and it has improved discipline among them."

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