“Raybot & Faybot are trying to learn about science, technology, engineering and maths.” Raybot and Faybot are two friendly robots that are interested in early-years education and science. They might sound like good and wholesome rolemodels, but they are the creation of Thales, one of the biggest arms companies in the world.
The characters are part of Thales’ schools strategy, and are used for the purpose of promoting the company to school children. The company also design lesson plans for years seven and eight (around 10-12 years old), sponsor family events, such as the Big Bang Fair, and have even produced an interactive missile simulator game for children.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Thales is the 10th biggest arms company in the world. It has sold arms to repressive regimes and dictatorships across the world: with military buyers that include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kazakhstan.
Thales is one of many arms companies that is putting an increasing focus on marketing itself to children. Unfortunately it is far from the only one. It is joined by BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and many other major arms companies that are pouring resources into reaching schools and young people.
Their methods include producing learning materials, sending ‘ambassadors’ around the country, holding national competitions and hosting site visits.
BAE Systems, for example, has an entire Roadshow team. It is Europe’s biggest arms company, so has a huge publicity budget. In 2017 alone it visited over 400 schools across the UK. The 2017 campaign was launched at a high profile event with children’s TV host Maddie Moate who “joined in the fun” with selfies. Over 213,000 young people have seen these BAE roadshows since 2005.
This is part of a much bigger strategy. The Observer quoted an online presentation in which BAE lays out its aims: making clear that it spends tens of millions of pounds a year on reaching pupils as young as four.
BAE has produced dozens of lesson plans and classroom worksheets with glaringly unsubtle references to militarism. One of those, issued to schoolchildren as young as seven, encourages them to imagine how special camouflage systems could have “significant advantages on the battlefield” by allowing tanks to become invisible to hostile thermal imaging systems.
It seems unlikely that the BAE team uses these visits to discuss the destruction BAE fighter jets are causing in Yemen. It is also hard to imagine that they highlighted the long list of repressive regimes and dictatorships that BAE arms and supports.
Arms company involvement doesn’t end at advertising and promotion. In 2015 BAE Systems took over sponsorship of Furness Academy in Barrow, Cumbria. In this role it provides “strategic direction” in areas including leadership, business management and back office expertise.
Likewise, the sponsors of Salisbury University Technical College include Chemring, an arms company that has been linked to the use of tear gas for repression in Hong Kong and Egypt.
Arms companies aren’t educational bodies, they are private companies. How can an arms company ever be trusted to act in the best interests of school children and not shareholders? How can companies that profit from international hostility ever be trusted to teach about areas like conflict resolution or the human cost of war?
Not all of the promotion happens in Schools. At the Farnborough International arms fair this July, astronaut Tim Peake opened a series of events for over 5,000 young people (including school students as young as 11). Activities included making model drones with Raytheon, exploring missiles with the RAF, and a Eurofighter VR challenge hosted by Leonardo.
Theses companies aren’t targeting schools and young people because they care about the quality of education. They are doing it out of self interest. It is an attempt to legitimise the industry and whitewash the appalling results of their business. This is made clear on BAE’s website, which, among the listed objectives of its education ambassador programme, includes “To improve our corporate reputation at both a local and national level.”
There are always ethical questions to be asked about private companies and multinational corporations working in classrooms. Those questions only become more serious when the companies in question sell weapons.
Schools are fundamental to our society. They are meant to be places for learning, and should never be used as promotional vehicles for arms companies. They exist to educate children and young people and to develop their ideas and understanding of the world, not to be recruiting offices or training grounds for those that profit from war.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)