In two weeks' time, on Remembrance Sunday, Arnold School's cadets, who number around 250, will march through Blackpool to the Cenotaph to pay their respects to the British soldiers who have lost their lives during armed conflict. Seventy-three of the dead are former pupils of the school.
A year in which even more than that number of soldiers have died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is a poignant time to be remembering such sacrifices. As Lt-Col John Ashford, who runs Arnold's Combined Cadet Force (CCF), points out, some of the soldiers he sees on the TV news are the same age as his own cadets.
That is heavy stuff for school pupils struggling with GCSE and A-level coursework and trying to figure out where to apply to university. But the CCF has been a part of the school for more than 100 years. It is the largest school corps in the country and a significant part of Arnold's character and ethos.
So, when Arnold's principal, Barry Hughes, arrived five years ago with plans to radically alter the school's involvement with the CCF (some say he wanted to abolish it entirely), the idea wasn't popular with teachers, parents and the pupils themselves.
A compromise was reached and the time each pupil had to spend in the CCF was reduced, from two years to one. Today, it is compulsory for all Year 9 pupils, after which participation is voluntary. The proportion of pupils who continue as cadets after Year 9 – about 50 per cent – has remained the same.
One thing Hughes did manage to change was the structure of the CCF within the school. Instead of it being an after-school activity, taking place after lessons for an hour or two in the afternoon, it has been integrated into the timetable. Hughes has established a daily hour within the curriculum when all pupils engage in something other than traditional lessons.
On a Monday, if you are a cadet, you parade for an hour after lunch time. On other days, you play sport, become involved in rehearsals for the production of The Sound of Music this year, or give your vocal cords a work out at choir practice.
"What we've done here," he says, "is that we've been able to move from the old public-school image of the CCF, where school stops so that CCF can happen, and we've got it working in a more sophisticated and modern way, giving children a chance to do something without it becoming the tail that wags the dog."
Hughes says he didn't want to make joining the force completely voluntary because there are many good things about it, all of which might disappear if they gave pupils the chance to opt out completely.
There was no CCF at Hughes's own school. That he mentions the film if...., which tells of the hold that the CCF has over boys at a public school, shows he is aware of the image that the CCF has.
"We are far from that image," he says, adding that the CCF is not even very militaristic. "Apart from the uniform, there's very little military emphasis at all. They march occasionally and salute each other. It's a vehicle for promoting things we want to promote in school: responsibility, perseverance and resourcefulness. You would find our older cadets to be very well-rounded people with a sense of service to the community and responsibility to themselves."
One reason he rolled the CCF activities into the school day was because some parents and pupils were resistant to staying on after school to parade. Ex-pupil and cadet Laura Stone, however, who returned to Arnold earlier this year to do work experience, says it is an integral part of the school and that many teachers are disappointed that involvement has been scaled down. Having spent the past few years leading treks in places such as Kazakhstan and North Korea, she has decided to train as a teacher and is an example of the sort of leadership the CCF encourages.
Ashford says that the school needed to move with the times, and that having almost half the student body as cadets at any one time, as he did before, was quite a responsibility. "It's not that it ceased to be popular, but from an administration point of view the numbers we've got now are about right," he says. "The interesting thing is that exactly the same proportion as before stay on. We're not a recruiting operation, just another example of what Arnold can offer to parents."
Then there's what the CCF offers to students: Isabelle Li Kim Wa, 16, relishes the annual camp, when cadets spend a week with 500 other cadets from nearby schools. She has just started to lead the younger cadets. David Rowley, 18, was able to attend the Army's Nesscliffe Leadership Training Camp this year, and thinks he has benefited hugely. Many adventure-type activities, such as sailing and canoeing, are difficult for schools to arrange because of the strict safety regulations, but Arnold pupils can take part in all these with the CCF.
About 40 former pupils are currently serving in the armed forces.
"The PlayStation generation" as Ashford calls them, are given the chance to learn some valuable leadership skills that he believes can't be taught, only acquired through practice.
Principal Barry Hughes has come full circle after five years at the school, where fees are almost £7,000 a year. He says he would now be uncomfortable allowing any pupil to abstain from the CCF on the grounds of conscientious objection. "That hasn't happened yet," he says.
"But if it did, I would invite the parents in and explain that they would be allowing their child to opt out of a very useful and exciting year."Reuse content