Use the force: Why ministers want all pupils to learn to fight

Next week a government report will recommend more cadet forces in state schools, but not everyone is at ease with the idea
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It is said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. But could the wars of the future be won in less salubrious surroundings – a Salford community college? A secondary modern in Kent? A city academy? If ministers have their way, the cadet corps could soon become a big part of state school tradition.

Next Monday, a review commissioned by the Government and led by the Labour MP, Quentin Davies, will propose the setting up of combined cadet forces in maintained schools. "Cadet forces are an undervalued and great national asset," he says.

There are 130,000 children in cadet forces around the country – 42,000 in school cadet corps, the remainder in community forces – but Davies thinks that there ought to be many more. In particular, he wants to redress the imbalance of having 200 independent school CCFs and only 60 state school corps: private schools swallowing the lion's share of the £80m Ministry of Defence cadet corps budget.

Davies, who grew up without CCF in the relatively peaceful surrounds of a Quaker school, lauds the cadets for their professionalism and rigorous training, which sets them apart from other organisations, such as the scouts. "You are going to have to pay intelligent interest in what you are being told," he says. "It's not for passengers. The benefits are very great and go far beyond any military value."

Davies says he has the firm support of the Prime Minister, schools minister Ed Balls, and defence ministers, but others are not so sure about the idea. A plan as controversial as this was never going to pass quietly and concerns have been raised that spreading army influence in schools might be blurring the lines between education, recreation and recruitment. "What school pupils have been telling me is they don't want their schools used for a government agenda of this kind," says David Gee, author of the recently published Rowntree Trust report into army recruitment, Informed Choice? "It's not an appropriate use of schools."

Davies fires back that he doesn't see this as military training or any kind of military recruitment. "This is purposeful activity for young people," he says. Still, one quarter to one-third of army personnel are ex-cadets. The Army is the single biggest employer of Old Etonians. And state schools, too, have shown that they are fertile breeding grounds for the Army: 69 per cent of applications for army scholarships at 15 and 16 come from the maintained sector.

Others will be concerned that cadets corps activities involve access to guns. At a time of rising youth crime, can the Government get tough on gangs and guns while encouraging weapons training in schools?

"No one would be kept for five minutes in a cadet force who didn't have a responsible attitude towards guns," retorts Davies. Cadets don't get given guns unless they have proven themselves to be responsible, he says, and they are always supervised. "I have no worries about that at all."

But Gee is also concerned about creating division in schools. He says pupils who conscientiously object (although joining the corps is likely to be voluntary) would be punished for an ethical choice by missing out on subsidised school trips – creating, de facto, excluded children. Davies replies that it's the same as saying you can't have music because some people don't play.

The idea of replicating the public school CCF model in state schools is nothing new. John Major and Michael Portillo, the then defence secretary, hatched plans to create a modern cadet corps in state schools in the run-up to the 1997 election.

Last year, the Ministry of Defence put up £800,000 to establish cadet corps in six maintained schools. One of these is Thomas Deacon Academy, in Peterborough – a stone's throw from Davies's constituency. This is the front line in the campaign to ease civil and military relations. It was here in Peterborough that uniformed servicemen from RAF Wittering reported receiving abuse in the city centre. Officers asked them not to leave base in uniform.

Thomas Deacon's principal, Dr Alan McMurdo, is, unsurprisingly, a big fan of the CCF project. "In my last two schools we had cadets," he says. "It was something I was quite happy with in terms of ethos and being satisfied that it wasn't a happy hunting ground for armed forces recruitment.

"It's about giving children opportunities, a structured leadership programme, and boundaries and experiences that give them independence, self-reliance, and all those sorts of things. The educational argument, I didn't have a problem with."

For the academy, which serves a mixed, urban area, with patches of deprivation, it was particularly important to offer outdoor activities, exposing children to a breadth of opportunities, and a variety of sporting and artistic pursuits. "The CCF is part of the picture of opening up opportunities for kids, because these kids haven't had those experiences," he says.

For a similar CCF set-up to work in other schools, McMurdo says they would need the support of the local community which, despite the Wittering incident, Thomas Deacon has. The school has also had a great deal of other help. It has strong links with nearby independent school Oundle and the Grantham Territorial Army. It has even been able to poach Staff Sergeant Carl Gelder from the Army and keep him as a salaried CCF and adventure sports instructor.

Then there are the new facilities, including a dedicated CCF building, which has an equipment store with shelves of sleeping bags, tents, and backpacks. There's enough stuff here to take nearly all of the 60 cadets to camp. Down the corridor is the weapons safe: fortified by safe doors and a spider's web of movement sensors. The building also features posters advertising careers in the Army. "It pays to join," says one ad, breaking down the payroll by rank, and pounds per day.

The sophistication of the HQ isn't matched by the drill on the tennis court; but the young recruits have only been at it since September, and only once a week. Needless to say, they're all keen as mustard – chins puffed out and raised to the sky.

Senior cadet Corporal Charlotte Cooper, 15, says more state schools could benefit from the CCF. "Getting more people involved in this sort of thing is really positive," she says. "So, instead of going out and dossing around, they can come to a club that can satisfy their need for excitement without doing stupid things like drinking and just going round being yobbish."

Ben Wright, 13, a ruddy-faced recruit with shaggy hair, agrees, and says it has had a positive effect in class. "Kids need something to keep them occupied – they need more discipline. The ones that do CCF are getting to be a lot more disciplined now."

All the noises coming out of Thomas Deacon are encouraging. But the academy is not your average school. It's a sleek, flower-shaped institution designed by Norman Foster that feels more like a futuristic shopping mall, as well it should. Costing £46.4m, it's considered the most expensive school in the country.

So the real question is whether other comprehensives will be able to put the plan into place. While broadly supporting the plans, Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is unequivocal that schools should be nothing more than hosts of the cadet corps. "There's absolutely no way we would welcome it if there's some expectation that some staff members are going to be out on the drill ground," he says.

The National Union of Teachers refused to comment until the review is published. But the union has made clear its concerns about the recruitment tactics of the Army. At the NUT conference in March, delegates said the MoD was focusing unfairly on comprehensives and glamorising war in its recruitment literature. Neither teaching union will be encouraged by suggestions that the curriculum should be revised to present the armed forces in a more positive light.

An MoD spokesman pointed out that schools would not have to meet the costs of setting up and running CCFs.

Love it or hate it: pupils speak out about learning the craft of warfare

Joseph Wragg, 18, is in the CCF at the independent St Albans School

"At its most basic, CCF is a great way to get out of the school routine and do something active with friends. At an early stage, people who get involved with CCF learn about teamwork and leadership.

"CCF camps are brilliant, and really good value – only £60 for a full week, including everything you'll need (food, shelter, and so on). Winter camps teach you a lot about yourself and toughen you up, because it can get very cold.

"As you get more senior in the CCF and take up leading positions, you gain organisational and teaching skills and how to deal with people younger than you, as well as some skills you wouldn't expect to acquire – such as how to fly a plane to solo standard, how to sail. You gain so many experiences to look back on with pride.

Hamish Roberts, 16, was a cadet at City of London School for Boys

"I did CCF at the age of 14. It was compulsory to do this, or spend weekends clearing up litter. We were made to march in a hot, tight uniform, in very hot weather and the people in charge would yell at us.

"Many of those in charge were sixth formers, who enjoyed the power they had over the younger boys. The punishments were always physically strenuous. I was made to run for a long period of time, in the heat, despite the fact that I was dehydrated and had a headache.

"I was expelled from the course because when my group was given 15 minutes of free time to go to the shops and buy some food, the rest of the group bought chocolate and a drink, while I bought some chips. But I was relieved to be asked the leave.

"I don't think the training was in any way useful, as most of the cadets would not go in to the Army, but were merely doing the training for Ucas points. It did not teach me anything – even the discipline it was supposed to – because I resented the people in charge of me."