New model army in the Major mould

Plan to extend school cadet corps pilloried as Tories' latest election gimmick
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Like Oliver Cromwell before him, John Major is planning a new model army - by putting more of Britain's pupils on parade. Mr Major's scheme for a modern cadet corp, which could find its way into the Conservative's election manifesto, was yesterday praised, but more often pilloried as the latest "political gimmick" to instil "Queen and country" discipline into Britain's wayward youth.

Under the plan floated by the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, the current 130,000 cadet force, which operates out of only 45 state schools, would be expanded to give every school pupil over 13 the opportunity to join the ranks.

In line with Mr Major's classless society, the popular image of the cadets as a coterie of public-school patriots would change, as Mr Portillo said yesterday, to mean "excellent opportunities for all young people ... to play a marvellous role on our society. They help young people towards the good values of life, towards self-esteem, self-discipline, team work and respect for others."

Such a notion was immediately attacked by Peter Miller, president of the Secondary Heads Association. "They are probably making an equation between military discipline and the difficulties teachers have with some children these days. But it doesn't work like that."

During his days at Harrow County Boys School, Mr Portillo chose not to play at the "marvellous role", opting instead for the Scouts. And John Major, at Rutlish Grammar in south-west London, was a cricket-playing pacifist who avoided the Combined Cadet Force. Tony Blair at Fettes College in Edinburgh was drafted into the cadets, but sought an honourable discharge as soon as he could to begin community work.

But yesterday at Rutlish, now a comprehensive, no one in the CCF was complaining about their most illustrious old boy's plans. Michael O'Neill, 15, has been in the school's CCF for two years and is considering joining the Royal Air Force as an engineer. "I like it. I've made good friends and its hard work," he said.

Every Wednesday and for weekend and summer camps, Michael dons the blue dress and beret of the CCF. The cadets have their own hut; they drill; they learn about military technology; and they have access to a wide range of sports and outdoor activities. Michael particularly likes the military discipline. "You have to polish your boots, make sure your uniform is neat and pressed. Keep your hair short," he said, adding: "Its important to me."

A quiet, well-mannered schoolboy, he is also a good rifle shot. He sees no problem in having access to rifles. "We're trained, trained to respect them. So there are no problems."

But Jill Marshall-Andrews of the Gun Control Network said the Government now appeared to be encouraging the next generation to embrace guns "and to get some pleasure from them".

Christopher Lawrence, 17, now in his fifth year of the CCF at Rutlish, and a former sergeant, said few joined just to get access to guns. Technology teacher John Humphries, a former commander of the school's CCF said: "I'd rather have a child trained to use a weapon than not. But I'd rather not have any weapons at all."

He said that the cadets' open day usually swelled the ranks, but once boys learned the realities of the corp, the drop-out rate was high. Of Rutlish's 940 boys, only 60 are in the CCF.

Headteacher Tony Mooney said: "If the MoD put money into schools, I would seriously say to other schools, look at it for what it offers." That cost of expanding the CCF to all schools, Labour Party analysts say, would be up to pounds 1.5bn.

However, as the uniformed cadets marched through the Rutlish playground yesterday, most boys seemed unimpressed by expansion plans. Chris Pearson, 13, said the CCF was "not for him". Was he a conscientious objector? Did he have strong moral grounds? Was he a pacifist? "No, the CCF is on Wednesday nights. And I do something else on Wednesday nights. And the boots, I mean you can't play football in those boots."

His friend Patrick Thorburn, also 13, added "I object too." Why? "Eh, I can't quite remember. Just put it's not quite me."