As plans for the first state-funded Free School, staffed entirely by ex-soldiers, begin to take shape, the UK's current love affair with its armed forces seems to be moving in a worrying new direction.
The claim made by the proposed Phoenix School in Oldham, along with Tom Burkard, author of the Centre for Policy Studies report Troops to Teachers, is that military discipline is the answer to the apparent woes of UK state education. For the Phoenix School, a "child friendly but not child centered approach" with a no nonsense attitude to discipline, is the answer to a failing system based on what they caricature as "the touch-feely, cuddly-bunny ideals of our 'progressive' educators."
The Troops to Teachers initiative reflects a wider engagement between military values and the Conservative Party's idea of a morally, as well as financially bankrupt 'broken Britain'. In the 2011 Theos Annual Lecture, former Chief of the General Staff, General Lord Richard Dannatt argued that new recruits to the army often lack "an understanding of the core values and standards of behaviour required by the military from their family or from within their wider community and the UK armed forces". For Dannatt, it seems that the military can act as a moral guide to help address decaying values in broken Britain.
Employing ex-soldiers as teachers is seen as the key to ensuring that, presumably through fear of punishment, children from deprived backgrounds fall in line at school. Burkard suggests that:
"Even though the individual soldier may not actually be proficient in combat, unarmed or otherwise (soldiers from the logistic and support corps are often devoid of any of the martial virtues), it is the image that counts. Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power".
Sounding suspiciously like "all they understand is force", it seems that raw physical power is obviously what liberal educators, myself certainly included, seem to be missing out on...
No doubt some ex-service personnel would make excellent teachers and it is the responsibility of the government to help them make the transition to a rewarding career on their return to civilian life. However, the suggestion that ex-soldiers, by nature, would make effective teachers is based overwhelmingly on their supposed aptitude for instilling discipline and 'respect'.
The deaths of four soldiers at the Deepcut Barracks between 1995 and 2002, alongside the 2006 death, from heatstroke, of Private Gavin Williams during a 'beasting' - an informal army punishment comprised of strenuous and exhausting physical activity - suggest that the army discipline and training regime is not something to which schools should aspire.
The proponents of Troops to Teachers argue that public perceptions of military training and discipline as brutal and inhumane are outdated. Burkard is quick to note that the Deepcut deaths "should not be considered as typical", glossing over the possibility that these events may be related to more serious systemic problems in the army training regime.
Even if we accept their claim that military education involves more carrot than stick, military discipline, whilst perhaps necessary to protect a democratic society, is still misplaced in its education system. Rigid discipline and obedience sits uneasily with of the goal of developing and encouraging reflective, free-thinking individuals. Military training and discipline cannot be disconnected from its role in preparing individuals for obedience to the chain of command, unquestioning acceptance of orders and, ultimately, conditioning them to overcome the moral prohibition on killing other human beings.
It's difficult to see exactly how challenging accepted wisdom and innovative, critical thinking, intellectual qualities essential in education, business and public service, can be fostered by educators who structure their teaching around militarised conceptions of discipline and obedience. Tolerance and respect for others are always essential, but education is much more than ingesting knowledge in a disciplined and obedient fashion.
Seeing military values as an antidote to a decadent and overly permissive liberal system is a worrying trend, and one that was characteristic of totalitarian movements during the 20th century. Military discipline, first designed to prepare individuals for participation in political violence, will not create tomorrow's free-thinking, morally responsible global citizens.
The idea that liberal education might learn from the practices of the military could in fact be turned on its head. The British Army is currently engaged in a counterinsurgency and stabilisation mission in Afghanistan, where reflection and cross-cultural engagement are key skills. Empathy, compassion, understanding and free enquiry, the hallmarks of a liberal education, may be much more important in these missions than selfless commitment and unquestioning obedience.
Perhaps we should be asking not what the military can do for liberal education, but what liberal education can do for the military?