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Tom Burkard: Red tape is delaying the foundation of a Free School staffed by ex-military teachers

Tom Burkard undertakes Education research for the Centre for Policy Studies and is a member of the NAS/UWT and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Buckingham. He is currently working to start a free special school staffed exclusively by teachers with experience in the armed forces.

Since 1994, the American Troops to Teachers programme has been training ex-service personnel to teach in tough inner-city schools.  It has been an astounding success: school principals overwhelmingly agree that ex-soldiers are more effective than conventionally-trained teachers.  That's all the more remarkable because almost all of these principals are conventionally-trained teachers themselves.

This isn't to say that ex-soldiers are supermen and superwomen; rather, they have spent upwards of 20 years moulding young people (who as often as not come from blighted urban areas) into effective and highly-skilled teams.  It's obvious that they will be better prepared to work in a rough school than a 23-year-old graduate from a middle-class background.  Throwing these young NQTs into our urban comps is rather a bit like Haig throwing his men against German machine-guns in 1914.

Michael Gove has supported the Troops to Teachers concept ever since the Centre for Policy Studies published my original report in February 2008, and he has just confirmed plans to launch a similar programme in England. 

However, Captain AK Burki of the Afghan Counter-Insurgency Unit at Warminster had an even better idea: why not start a Free School where all full-time teachers are ex-military?  We've been working on this idea since May, and with Lord Guthrie's support, it is well on its way to becoming a reality.  On Friday the Centre for Policy Studies published our report, Something Can Be Done: Troops in our schools will do more than troops on our streets

The response has been phenomenal—for two days, I was besieged by the media.  No less than six TV companies want to produce documentaries on this project as it unfolds (I've promised it to Vivian White at Panorama, who produced the excellent Classroom Warriors earlier this year). 

But the biggest problem is getting across the nature of the school we want to create.  Almost every interviewer assumed that we want to start a military academy.  The last thing we want to do is have our pupils engaged in square bashing on the sports field.  There's nothing wrong with military drill and Combined Cadet Forces, but we want to create a school that will suit everyone, not just potential squaddies.  We want to start schools that will be a part of the entire community, where everyone—even single mums and stepfathers—plays a part in children's education.

Another problem is getting people to understand that modern volunteer military forces don't have glasshouse discipline.  Everyone who is in the forces is there because they want to be there.  These days, one of the most severe punishments you can receive is to be discharged from service.

Likewise, the Phoenix Free School (as it has been named) will establish good discipline through good teaching.  Yes, you need the stick—but if you have to use it all the time, you've lost the battle.  The essence of zero-tolerance discipline is simple: if pupils respect their teachers and are always learning, teachers seldom have to employ more than the mildest of sanctions.  In the three years that I taught special needs pupils in a Norwich comprehensive, I never once had to send a pupil out of the classroom for discipline.  Of course, I was an 'unqualified' teacher: my only training was the military Methods of Instruction course I attended as a TA corporal.

The Phoenix Free School will discard moral relativism and child-centred educational theory.  'Self-esteem' training is out: humans are quite selfish enough without this.  Competition—now virtually banned in maintained schools—is in.  Young people respond eagerly to contests--that's why they spend so much time on their X-boxes.  New pupils will receive intensive remedial instruction in basic literacy and numeracy skills before they are expected to master other academic disciplines.  And then they will be educated to the highest possible standard.  Phoenix will use the Cambridge IGCSE, not so much because it is more demanding, but because it has a much better structure than conventional GCSEs.

Alas, the first Phoenix Free School will not open its doors for another two years.  We strongly recommend that Michael Gove have another look at the cumbersome Free School application procedure devised by his officials: if he wants this brilliant programme to make any kind of an impact before the next general election, he'll have to knock a lot of heads together.  From the response we've had to our proposal, I am sure he would have the media and the political nation behind him.


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