Home > General Politics > Service schools: a reply to Dan Hodges and David Lammy

Service schools: a reply to Dan Hodges and David Lammy

Sod’s law

It is sod’s law that, after roughly 1,500 blogposts, some of them not that bad and most of them on the long side, my notoriety as a peddlar of “offensive nonsense” should be settled by a 350 word post, written in about three minutes before I went off to so something more interesting and directly relevant instead.

I speak of my short from-the-hip post earlier this week, later cross-posted to Liberal Conspiracy by its idisoyncratic editor, Sunny Hundal, in which I expressed in no uncertain terms my dismay at the ‘service schools’ piece in the Telegraph from Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy.  In my piece, I cast doubt on the suitability of the armed services as providers of secondary education, in light of some of the more negative aspects of armed services culture.

Dan Hodges: silly person

The reaction was swift.  First up, there was Dan Hodges, making very clear to his readership what Sunny and I are up to:

“Has Twigg not noticed that ex-servicemen are more likely to be serving sentences for violent and sexual offences than the general prison population”, asked the leading Left-wing website Liberal Conspiracy. [Hodges leaves out the hyperlink to the Howard League article, from which this is directly quoted.] “I’d love to meet Stephen Twigg, punch him in the face and tell him that’s what military schools teach you”, said one Twitter hero.

There is a veneer of faux morality painted over these attacks, but in reality they are political. “It would be much better for the party if Stephen Twigg were reshuffled as quickly as possible, a long way away from any position of policy influence”, Liberal Conspiracy added, revealing its true colours. It’s no coincidence that Stephen Twigg is also honorary president of Progress, the Blairite think-tank recently threatened with expulsion from the party by the unions.

Yeah, right. So I am Liberal Conspiracy now, am I?  The fact that Sunny’s never included me on his list of contributors is probably all part of the anti-Blairite plot in Dan Hodges-world in which, presumably Sunny and I sit in an RMT-funded bunker somewhere under Westminster, mwahahahing and stroking white cats as we discuss in hushed tones our latest attempts at regime destabilisation. 

That’s Dan Hodges-world, as opposed to the real world, in which an angry bloke in Lancashire fires off a quick post about education before going out to try and improve education (see below) and another bloke in London copies and pastes a post for his site because he’s got nothing better for the 2pm slot.  The Lancashire bloke didn’t even know Stephen Twigg was Hon President of Progress, by the way, as Progress is an organisation to which he is largely indifferent, although he did write an article for them a while back on how to win elections, based on a record of actually winning elections.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of Hodges’ rant, though, is by attacking me for my supposed anti-Blairite plotting, he’s effectively denouncing probably the most important and successful Blairite project of the lot: education, education, education.  New Labour’s education policy, though marred late on by the needless emergency of the Academuy programme, is one of the success stories. 

 More resources were put into education, teachers were, on the whole, allowed to do what they do best despite the widespread negative publicity from the rightwing press, and millions of young people benefited as a result.  GCSE results may reflect an element of grade inflation, but they also reflect real improvements.

In terms of international comparison, and contrary to the outright lies being peddled by the Gove, the Department for Education, and rightwing commentators alike, English students have done well, though inequalities in attainment do remain a concern.   In particular, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment’s finding that English 15 year olds’ ability to “reflect and evaluate” on information they are given is relatively well enhanced by current educational methods and policies.  This, of course, is the kind of educational success that socialists should be championing, on the basis that young people thinking for themselves is a good thing.

But let’s leave Dan Hodges to his fantasy-world, in which the  term ‘anti-Blairite’ refers only to people, not policy.  He writes nicely but he’s fundamentally just silly, well suited to earning money for rubbish at the Telegraph but of no political worth.

David Lammy: not silly, but wrong

David Lammy is a different matter.  He has the makings of a serious politician, and while I don’t buy everything in his Out of the Ashes book on the riots (which I read with interest because I was a researcher for the Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots project), it is clear that he is trying to make sense of what’s going on with young people in his home area in London, and to formulate coherent ideas about how the deep-rooted problems might be addressed.

So, when David writes in the New Statesman that I’m talking “offensive nonsense” (strangely, without referring or linking directly to my piece, though the borstal reference makes it clear what he’s alluding to), before going on to defend the “idea” of Service Schools as worth studying, I site up and take notice.

Now, I understand the golden rule Labour politicians feel they must follow.  The armed forces must not be criticised.  They must at all times be held up as symbols of British virtue and indefatigable spirit.  That the necessary counterbalance to having sent them off to fight, from the Falklands onwards, in wars that would otherwise be harder to justify to the public.  Yes, of course it’s illogical, but it’s worked a treat, to the extent that no politician ever feels able to critique any aspect of the armed services.  David’s just following the rules.

But I’m not an elected politician any more, so I can and will kick back against the kind of fetishisation that David, unwittingly certainly, would impose on people like me.  I stand by my main concern, expressed in brief in my “offensive” piece, that there are aspects of the culture within the armed forces which might just possibly be conducive to them undertaking their primary role (or might be an unfortunate but necessary side effect of the need for that primary role), but which may not be conducive to the provision of education.  

It may be convenient for Labour politicians to ignore that, alongside all that disciplined efficiency the forces display when they go about their work, there have been worrying accounts of bullying in barracks, and of poor behaviour outside barracks, but as someone interested in good education it’s my job to do the reminding (however shocking), and at least ask the questions, especially when there may still be a strong view within the forces that this is an unpleasant but necessary downside to what they do best. 

Perhaps the key thing to remember here is that, while the armed forces imposes discipline within its own ranks in order that those ranks function well within the army, schools are about equipping young people to function outside and beyond school.  Prima facie, therefore, it seems odd to suggest that the army, which has problems equipping its people with the skills and attitudes necessary for life beyond the army, should be seen as the institution best placed to equip young people to cope with life beyond school. 

There’s even an acknowledgment of this from Twigg and Murphy, when they write in their piece:

These plans would also provide new career opportunities and skills for those leaving the Forces at a time when many are entering a strained jobs market. All of these measures would aim to better integrate military and civilian communities and families, ensuring there is mutual support before and after military service, and that our troops can continue to make an enormous contribution to our country away from the frontline.

The re-integration of ex-servicepeople into civilian life is a laudable aim, but doing so by creating militarised environments for young civilians, which may in turn make post-schoo life more dificult to cope with, is not laudable.

This bring us to the key defence of service schools set out by David Lammy in his follow-up piece:

If those same sceptics cared about improving the life chances of the children of the urban poor, they’d know the importance of building resilience. Considering the pressures of urban life, the slow creep of a culture of instant gratification, where respect can be won by the glint of a knife and where self esteem can purchased (or looted) at your local Foot Locker, why should we deprive teenagers of an institution that might make them value something different?

Any sensible analysis of the riots and current thinking about behavioural economics points to the importance of human capital and character, so why shouldn’t armed forces personnel be involved in their cultivation? Our armed forces are, after all, resilience personified.

It’s a nice rhetorical turn, but the bold assertions are backed by no evidence, other than a threadbare paper from Tory “thinkers” at Res Publica (the paper itself torn apart here).  

What does he actually mean by “resilence”?  The ability to walk through the night with a heavy load?  The capacity to cope with a military-style institution for years is not an end in itself? Building resilience to the effects of an institution to which you are exposed in order to enhance your resilience to it seems a bit circular to me.

Real resilience

As it happens, I wrote my own piece very quickly the other day because I was just about to go out to a meeting about what I understand by the term “resilience”. 

I was on my way to a comprehensive school serving an urban area, some of which figures in national statistics as amongst ‘top 1% for deprivation in England’.  I am the link governor for English at this school, and I was meeting the Head of English to review with her the developments around our ‘tracking’ systems, whereby we measure the progress of each child in the school, in order then to formulate and deliver plans to get/keep children on track, or to create additional challenges to those already on track and capable of exceeding their current targets.

A key focus for our discussion was how we might best categorise the various learning challenges that some of our students face, many of which emanate from outside school, such as pressure on a 15 year old from a parent not to attend school because something else considered more important needs doing instead.  The process we were looking at was how best teachers and other school staff can help each and every student cope with what life throws at her/him, or what baggage she/he brings into school, and then go on and meet their potential. 

Looking at tracking database design is  not very glamorous, and it’s a small part of the overall job, but that’s what I call building resilience.

At the moment, our school is still around the national average for achievement for GCSE English.  If we keep our support resources together, and keep improving how we target them, alongside the constant drive to refine our core teaching methods, we will – based on the tracking data for young students, be soaring above the current national average (though of course we accept, and welcome, the fact that other schools are also doing ever better by their students, and the national average will therefore rise).

The Duke of York

It’s worth noting, in this context, the other key rationale set out by Twigg and Murphy in their paper, that of academic achievement:

The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover specialises in science, sport, physical and outdoor education, and is trialling a BTEC qualification in Military Music. Results are impressive: pupils do twice as well as the national average at GCSE, including in English and Maths.

Let us leave aside the fact that the most commonly used measure of GCSE national averages is the percentage of pupils gaining five or A*-C grades (incl. English and Maths),  that the current national average for this is 59%, and that 118% of Duke of York School students therefore achieve tfive A*-Cs.  Impressive ceraintly.  Also mathematically impossible.  Perhaps there’s another measure being used.

Let us instead note that the Duke of York School’s results were achieved with 0% students on Free School Meals (the common proxy for being from a poor family) and 0% with special educational needs (national averages 15.9% and 8.5% respectively) .  Moreover, some 62% of students coming into the Duke of York school are already ‘high attainers’ (above level 4 at Key Stage 2), as against 27% in my school, for example.

In short, Twigg and Murphy’s single example of how military schools might “tackle disadvantage and even promote social mobility” appears to be a school doing the opposite.

Irrelevancies and straw men

Much of of the rest of David Lammy’s respone to my “offensive nonsense” we can tick off quite quickly as guff.  His opening salvo, in which he attacks lefties like me for ignoring the fact that the armed forces are in the public sector is simply an irrelevance.  

He then creates a straw man with his suggestion that my and other objections are about an attempt to restrict the “adventure training, flying, sailing, white water rafting, and navigating Britain’s finest landscapes from Cornwall to the Cairngorm”.  This is nonsense. My own piece is solely focused on the ‘service schools’ elements of the new proposals; additional extra-curricular activity of the type David describes is of course to be welcomed. 

Nor, incidentally, do I have any objections at all to the Department for Education creating a specific recruitment route for ex-servicepeople wishing to enter teaching.  Many ex-servicepeople do have considerable technical skills and knowledge and if these can be brought to bear within an educational environment and culture, it is to be welcomed.  What I object to is not the the people in the services who are willing and able to embrace educational culture, but to the disrespectful notion that services culture is in some way superior to the one that currently pervades our schools. 

Finally, there’s David’s insistence that:

Of course no one wants the modern equivalent of the borstal. But that is not what is being proposed.

But of course I didn’t say that new borstals were being proposed.  What I said was that, while new service schools might be set up with the intention that they simply offer an alternative to mainstream schools, there is a very good chance that, over time, the admissions policy will be dictated by the opportunity that then arises, within the ‘managed transfer’ process,  for under-resourced mainstream schools, simply to shunt their disruptive pupils off to these new ‘academies’.  

David’s own casual linkage between the 2011 riots and the virtues of these new schools does nothing to persuade me otherwise.  The other possibility, of course, is that regional Duke of York equivalents are set up, geared to ‘cherrypicking’ students and the creation of junior Sandhursts for the pointy-elbowed middle classes.  I fail to see how, in the process of implementation, service schools could do anything other than veer towards one extreme or the other.

On being offensive

Let’s be clear on the process the Labour hierarchy is involved in here.  Twigg and Murphy’s piece is not, as David Lammy claims “just that: an idea” (oddly, he calls it a “promise” just eight lines higher).  That’s not how the process works.

They have deliberately chosen to flag up their new ‘idea’ in the Daily Telegraph, to see whether it might be a vote winner.  If the reception is good, then it’s added into the “possibles for manifesto” spreasheet.   It gets extra marks if, from lefties like me, it gets a lukewarm “well, I have concerns, but let’s see the detail” response which David Lammy now seeks to extract from us, and the inevitability of its imposition grows ever greater the more we stay silent, awaiting the detail that never actually arrives.

In such circumstances, where fundamentally important policy becomes hostage to the need to win over the Telegraph readership, then the kind of instant reaction I provided a few days ago – scornful, angry, “offensive” even if it means getting the point across – is entirely justified. 

If that ends up making me a hate figure amongst “respectable” Labour, desperate to be seen to kowtow to the fetishisation of the armed forces, even at the expense of coherent education policy which builds on New Labour’s achievements rather than seek to out-Gove Gove, so be it.

Categories: General Politics
  1. September 4, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for this thorough, well-argued piece.

    Please can you post the link to your original article on service schools, and to the critique of the Res Publica paper (the link in your piece is broken)?

    Best wishes,

  1. July 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm

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