Things have really moved on since ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland lodged a petition earlier this year with the backing of over a thousand signatures at the Scottish Parliament concerning military visits to state schools.
Back in March we asked Holyrood to ensure ‘guidance is provided to schools', ‘information is collected to provide public monitoring’ and ‘parents/guardians are consulted’ when it comes to visits by the military.
This reflected the work done with the Welsh Assembly in 2015 when Assembly Members in Cardiff agreed to support, in principle, greater oversight, guidance and balance in relation to how the armed forces operate in secondary schools. This decision was made in recognition of the unique nature of an armed forces career.
Last week we got the chance to put our case to the Public Petitions Committee in Edinburgh. We answered questions on how visits to schools is part of the armed forces long-term recruitment process, about the level and distribution of visits, and the lack of clarity and coordination between institutions and authorities responsible for education and careers as to how, and even if, the visits should be overseen and parents consulted.
We raised concerns about the role of Capita, the private company that holds the army recruitment contract, in visits to schools. Part of the remit of their Outreach teams is to 'promote Army Careers by going to schools'. We hope that an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament would shed light on what they actually do.
We were delighted that the five members of the Committee agreed that there now needs to be further examination of the issue.
During the hearing, the Committee asked us what the chances of the armed forces presenting a balanced view, and we replied that currently we do not believe they do at all, and that school staff or other organisations might be best placed to offer alternative perspectives.
When the Committee suggested that the armed forces might be offering balance by discussing peacekeeping work through the UN, we were able to point out that militarised peacekeeping is not the only response to conflict that children might learn. To provide real balance, they should also be educated about nonviolent responses such as peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
We also shared with the Committee our concern that the realities of violent conflict and combat situations are hidden beneath marketing strategies aimed at pulling in young people, such as a focus on skills development and fun outdoors activities.
Committee Convenor, Johan Lamont MSP, said after hearing our evidence, that petition (PE01603) should be taken forward because Members needed to “get a sense of where people are on this and that dilemma between on the one hand particular communities being targeted but also recognising that for some young people there’s potentially some good recruitment outcomes.”
The Convenor also made the point that young people should perhaps have the right to opt out of activities with the armed forces in their schools themselves, a point which we agreed with.
The Committee, made up of two SNP, two Conservative and one Labour Member, agreed they would now contact a number of public bodies asking for current advice, information and guidelines on military visits to schools. These include the Scottish Government, local authorities, the Armed Forces Careers Office, Skills Development Scotland, the Association of Heads and Deputies in Scotland, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Youth Parliament.
The Scottish media took up the story with gusto. Our appearance in Edinburgh was featured in two national newspapers and online, with major broadcasters weighing in too.
Daily newspaper, The National, ran the headline ‘Armed forces’ school visits to be reviewed amid fears disadvantaged pupils are being targeted’. That was echoed by Scottish Television, which took the line ‘Army recruitment ‘targeting deprived pupils’.
BBC Scotland ran an online piece which picked out a major detail from our own submission, quoting the Army: "In 2013 the Army stated that its schools careers advice ‘is often more tailored and directed to those at risk of disengaging with education or work or those struggling academically".
The prominent online outlet – Common Space – and The Herald newspaper also ran more than one piece on our appearance.
They both quoted ForcesWatch coordinator, Emma Sangster, saying: “We are very happy with the positive outcome of the hearing. The Public Petitions Committee clearly saw our point – namely that there is need for more transparency, guidance and oversight on the issue of military visits to schools in Scotland.
"We welcome the fact the committee wishes to take our petition forward and seek the views of other stakeholders over military visits; especially student, parents and teacher organisations, local authorities and indeed the military itself.
"There are a number of points to address here - around the process of recruitment in schools and access to children within the education system for this purpose, the rights of pupils and parents, the number and distribution of military visits and who has overall authority over such visits.
"We remain at the disposal of the committee and Scottish Parliament and thank them for engaging with us and Quakers in Scotland on what is most certainly an important issue for pupils, families and the education community across Scotland."
The public bodies being contacted now have four weeks to respond to the Committee. ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland will then have a month to respond to those submissions.
Another hearing of the Petitions Committee will then decide what action to take. Our hope is that the petition will continue move forward in the Parliament and in time a full inquiry and/or debate can be held into the nature of military visits in Scotland’s schools.