This afternoon the Welsh Assembly debated the issue of armed forces visits to schools in Wales, following the Welsh Government’s acceptance of the Welsh Assembly Petitions Committee’s three recommendations for ensuring greater transparency and balance of views regarding these visits. The debate can be watched online here, and a transcript of it can be read online here.
Earlier in the day, the issue was explored by BBC Wales in a written piece and two lively radio debates – one in Welsh and one in English – both of which featured a spokesperson from ForcesWatch, raising our concerns about the recruitment agenda behind the visits, the greater frequency of visits to schools in areas of greater deprivation, and the sanitised, glamourised image of the armed forces that students often seem to be getting from the visits. Welsh-language S4C TV explored the issue in their evening news (from 19mins) and then the political discussion show (from 14.50)
The Welsh Assembly debate saw a range of views expressed, by Welsh Assembly Members from all five Parties, although there was a general consensus that the issues was an important one because of the unique nature of an armed forces career, and a general support for the recommendations. The Petitions Committee chair William Powell AM opened the debate, noting that the Petitions Committee found that whilst a ban on armed forces visits to schools would be inappropriate, there was evidence that the visits occur more in areas of disadvantage, and asserted that the visits must not involve glamourised representations of the armed forces being put across unchallenged to students.
'Joining the Army is not a real life video game'
Jenny Rathbone AM stressed that 'Joining the Army is not a real life video game' – that military life can be 'dangerous & unpredictable', with the possibility of having ‘to kill someone you don’t know and have never met’, and of being killed or permanently injured, part of the ‘horrors of war’. She noted that the UK is the only country in the EU to recruit 16 year-olds into the armed forces (something ForcesWatch is campaigning to change). She also mentioned concerns about the low levels of literacy among many recruits, and about the spate of deaths during armed forces training in recent years. She stated that 'We should be very cautious about Army recruitment in schools'.
Darren Millar AM, chair of the Cross Party Group on Armed Forces and Cadets, reiterated the claim often made by the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence, that the armed forces never visit schools for recruitment purposes, but rather that they help to deliver the National Curriculum, and that they only attend schools on invitation. ForcesWatch have deconstructed these claims many times, most recently in this Wales-specific briefing. We would not disagree with his points that it is unsurprising that some schools receive more visits because their headteachers are well-disposed to them, and they have long associations with the armed forces. However, his emphasis on the trades that the armed forces can offer, and the armed forces’ peace-keeping role, overlooks the facts that the youngest, most disadvantaged recruits, are greatly over-represented in the most dangerous and least-transferable skills-providing parts of the armed forces.
This emphasis on potential skills provided by the armed forces also overlooks the fundamental role of the military; as the Army stated in a rare, candid moment in 1996: ‘The fundamental and perhaps only difference of significance, between military service and other legitimate professions and occupations is that servicemen and women must be prepared, at any time and in the service of others rather than themselves, to participate in protracted and sometimes wholesale destruction and violence, to kill and be killed for benign and politically justifiable purposes... It is easy in the myopia of a prolonged period of peace and low intensity operations to lose sight of this ultimate reality.’ Lastly, his claim that other employers would visit schools on a similar level to the armed forces if they were invited or made more of an effort, does not take into account that the armed forces have significant resources for these visits. For example, the Welsh Ambulance Service hardly makes any school visits as it doesn’t have the resources to do so, and the Welsh Fire Service make more visits but focus on fire safety. In any case, the professions are not comparable; as the Army quote above goes on to say: ‘Other professions, such as the police and fire service, also face death and injury, often more frequently than do members of the Army, but not on the same potential scale, or with the same inherent levels of lethal danger; none face the potentially devastating experience of deliberately taking life as a normal part of their roles.’