Tom Bennett

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Troops to Teachers: Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Twiggy?

Panic.

I normally prefer to play the ball, not the man, but Stephen Twigg is beginning to look like Quiz-Kid Donnie King, the washed up yesterday man from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 ensemble film Magnolia. ‘Look, you used to love me!’ he seems to say. ‘I sorted that rotter Portillo out, remember?’ Well, I do remember, and I’m very grateful. But right now Michael Gove is rolling his tanks on to the lawns of the secret garden, and there’s no credible opposition across the sword lines that looks close to matching wits with him, like Moriaty and Holmes, grappling on the Reichenbach falls of the schools debate. It’s The Hulk versus Mr Bean right now. Whatever camp you’re in, that can’t be good for the debate. Every time I see Stephen Twigg I think, aww man, does his mum know he’s got those scissors?

The latest mouse fart from the Ideas Factory is a strangely familiar air: Military Schools for tough (read: poor) areas. A spot of service, it seems, will turn bawds and brawlers into One-Man-Learning-Corps. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes: Michael Gove’s Christmas list. So military schools can join academy schooling as something championed by both sides of the House. Now they just have to find ways to hate each other for the same thing but for different reasons.

I wrote about this before, when the American project, Troops to Teachers, was first proposed as a roll-out over here. Like rock ‘n’ roll, fee-paying tertiary education and the influenza of sub-prime debt, where the colonies lead, the parent follows. At the time I was concerned that every statistic and claim made by the TTT zealots was based on suspicious evidence to say the least. Claims of academic improvement in such schools were more modest that the headlines suggested, and more worryingly, every major study into the efficacy of such institutions that I could find, had been conducted either by the TTT leaders themselves, or by the educational institutions that ran, or were affiliated to, the program. Hardly impartial researchers, I think many would agree.

That’s not to say that some ex-military men and women wouldn’t make excellent teachers, and I can certainly see how many of their army experiences would be useful, transferable skills into the theatre of education. But it isn’t a simple, linear process to map one industry with another. They are very different fields. Or to put it another way, does the process work in reverse? Would we say that the army would benefit from teachers bringing all their terrific classroom experience into the army. God help us. If we’d sent most staff rooms I know against Hitler, well, the Queen would be wearing a moustache by now.

Is this what you want, Twigg? IS IT? Monster.

There are other claims in the Respublica think tank Green Paper that smell of the smoke that accompanies mirrors; that, for instance, kids in tough backgrounds are better served by people who grew up in similar circumstances to them. I hope *peers down spectacles* that you’re not suggesting that you have to be from a specific community to reach or teach a specific community, because that’s not a logic I’d be very comfortable applying to, say, race, gender or ethnicity. I’m a lower middle-class white man teaching children in a poor part of the East End, from all backgrounds. Does Stephen Twigg suggest I’m handicapped in my teaching thereby? Just asking.

There is nothing wrong with admitting what this program is: a back-to-work project, moving demobbed military into other jobs where they can be useful. This is simply a sop to an anxious electorate, concerned with inner city decay reaching their drive-ways. But to call it a ‘strategy’ to remotivate and re-engage the poor is an insult to both sides of the equation, neither of whom are so simple as to be the solution to each other. And don’t let’s succumb to the gruesome subtext of some who complain against this scheme: those dislocated hipsters who basically have a bee under their backflaps about the army even existing. If you have a problem with the military being involved in schools then I suggest you ask yourself from where people are to come who will join and preserve the liberties we enjoy so fitfully? I rest my case and swerve from Godwin.

Kids in all schools need strong boundaries, governed by love. Kids from chaotic backgrounds need it more, if you’re even remotely interested in social mobility. You don’t need an army to do that. You just need teachers that care enough to bring order into classrooms, and school leaders who care enough to back them up.

Any other bright ideas, Private Pike?