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Sunday, 4 September 2011

Military schools miss the target

The Cameron Government is encouraging the formation of a 'free school' in Manchester (the Phoenix school) - funded by the state - that is to be run entirely by former soldiers. According to The Sunday Times (4.9.11), the new school is to operate a "zero tolerance" approach to indiscipline, the malady the government most obviously identified as the principal cause of the riots across England's cities in August 2011.

This announcement, first made public in The Guardian (2.9.11), comes hot on the heels of a declaration that the American "zero tolerance" policing champion, William Bratton, was to be considered for the post of Commissioner at London's Metropolitan Police because of his record in tackling gang culture in New York and Los Angeles; in the wake of a proposed Sandhurst-style police training college to create an officer class, packed with former soldiers and intelligence officials, among police that would be a precursor to an American-style FBI; and amid calls for the return of 'national service'.

The above indicate worrying levels of militarism and coercion in national life, the insertion of "martial values" ever deeper into the social and psychological fabric of British society. Britain is at war in two theatres - Libya and Afghanistan - and also leading the EU's efforts at sanctions against Syria. Pro-military charities are evident in schools, nurseries and communities, military personnel appear on a range of television programmes.

The latest announcement, however, would institutionalise martial culture in the very curriculum of a state-funded school. Commented the Phoenix school's likely headteacher, Captain Affan Burki: "All the old rememdies for poverty, underachievement and alienation have been tested to destruction. The consequences were starkly before us on the streets of Tottenham and Croydon."

According to Burki, echoing the government's thoughts about broad and deep moral decay as a source of the English riots, "...before we put troops on the streets we should consider putting them in our schools".

What will troops do in the schools? Despite claims that there would be no parade ground humiliation rituals for wayward behaviour, it is instructive that schools' secretary, Michael Gove, has recently scrapped the requirement for teachers to record every instance of corporal punishment, opening the door to harsher disciplinary regimes. In language all too familiar in an imperial culture, Gove aims, thereby, to restore "civilised " behaviour among "a vicious, lawless, immoral minority". It's the language used by many before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only now it's being deployed at home.

What's wrong with that? Surely, there must be discipline? Of course, but the problem with the series of proposals and plans discussed above is that they suggest that the solution to Britain's problems of crime and disorder lie almost entirely in better behaviour among the children of the poor. And that solving the behavioural problem will generate youth capable of taking advantage of what opportunities there might be in terms of education and work. Herein lies the major flaw.

The vast majority of rioting youth arrested and prosecuted after the riots are from very poor neighbourhoods which have lost jobs at a faster rate than the rest of the country. Over 40% of defendants live in the top 10% of the most deprived places in the country, according to Liverpool University's Alex Singleton. The Institute of Public Policy Research argues that defendants come from areas of "stubbornly high" child poverty rates and low educational attainment.

The youth and community budgets in those areas are earmarked for deep cuts, as are other public services on which those communities in particular depend. Rates of unemployment in poor areas are 3-4 times the national average. In that context, morality and behaviour are marginal as causes of alienation: it is the very physical, economic and social fabric of stability, legitimate opportunity and progress that is missing, allowing little or no room for ambition, initiative and endeavour.

Getting school children to listen more to their military mentors won't change that.

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