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MSPs are being urged to hold an inquiry into the presence of the armed forces in Scotland’s schools after an outcry over plans to set up cadet units aimed at the poorest pupils.
Peace campaigners will this week lodge a public petition at Holyrood calling for a probe into the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force visiting schools with an eye to recruitment.
The move follows a Sunday Herald front page report last weekend in which Tory plans to create military cadet units in state schools in Scotland's most deprived areas were attacked by a senior SNP source as an attempt to recruit vulnerable children as British Army 'cannon fodder'.
Research suggests Scottish schools receive a disproportionately high level of military visits compared to other parts of the UK, yet only a third are overtly about careers, with the rest ostensibly related to education, team building and physical fitness.
The petitioners - the ForcesWatch group, which monitors military recruitment; and Quakers in Scotland - fear creeping militarism in schools is promoting the forces to children who have little understanding of the potential risks and consequences of signing up.
The new Holyrood petition calls on the education and culture committee to hold an inquiry into armed forces school visits and produce guidance to ensure greater scrutiny and transparency.
In 2013, a Commons parliamentary answer revealed Scotland accounted for 11.2 per cent of armed forces schools visits in 2011-12, far higher than its 8.4 per cent of the UK population.
In addition, between 2010 and 2012 around 83 per cent of Scottish state secondaries were visited at least once, with 31 visited more than 10 times, and six visited more than six times.
Edinburgh and Fife were the most highly visited council areas. However there was no evidence that schools in more deprived areas were prioritised.
ForcesWatch coordinator Emma Sangster said: “Joining the military is not something to do lightly and schools should not be involved in, nor influence, young people in making such a life-changing decision. There is a growing body of evidence that young recruits, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are subject to higher health risks and poorer long-term outcomes than older recruits.”
Mairi Campbell-Jack, of Quakers in Scotland, said she hoped the petition would spark a wider public debate about the forces in schools.
“Quakers have always rejected the notion that war is inevitable and they hold each life sacred. We have concerns about increasing militarism within our society, and we believe it has no place in the classroom at all.”
The petition is due to be launched at an event sponsored by the Scottish Green party in parliament on Thursday - the centenary of the Military Service Bill which paved the way for conscription in the First World War, but also permitted conscientious objection.
The Sunday Herald last week revealed the Westminster Tory government wants to create in-school cadet units for the first time north of the border. Armed forces recruitment minister Julian Brazier urged the SNP government to embrace the idea, starting with “areas of high deprivation”.
A senior Scottish Government source dismissed the plan as a “cannon fodder scheme” reminiscent of the 18th century British officer General Wolfe who recommended using Highlanders in North America as they were “no great mischief if they fall”.
SNP children’s minister Aileen Campbell has so far cold-shouldered the idea, stressing that, unlike in England, Scottish state schools have never had cadet units based within them.
The EIS teaching union also said there would be “a fair degree of concern among the teaching profession if we were to go down this route” on in-school cadet units.
With the armed forces struggling to fill their ranks, the UK government recently launched a £50m programme to deliver 500 in-school cadet units across the UK by 2020, with “less affluent” areas being prioritised.
Open to pupils aged 13 to 18, the Combined Cadet Force scheme is based on a partnership between schools, adult volunteers and the Ministry of Defence, with the latter providing uniforms, weapons, ammunition and access to military facilities and transport.
Pupils can sign up for full-blown military training aged 15 years and seven months, but need parental permission to do so. People are free to join the forces on their own initiative from 18.
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “It’s entirely a matter for individuals or groups to bring petitions to the Scottish Parliament, but I also believe that it’s up to individual schools to decide if they have visits from the armed forces on an information basis.
“I think the military can do a huge amount of very good work without having to recruit people - it’s not about recruitment - and cadet forces are enormously popular with youngsters and do a lot of good. I’m not convinced there’s a need for it [the petition], because I think the armed forces do a fantastic job and schools and local authorities respect that.”