Why Michael Gove’s plan to fast-track soldiers into schools is worrying

Could anything be more important to the future of our society than education? I truly believe not. That’s partly why I chose a career in lecturing, believing it a worthwhile use of my skills as a physicist. There are plenty of other topics causing concern at the moment, such as unemployment, crime and international tensions. We, as a society, need to tackle those issues but, in doing so, we are treating symptoms, not solving the problems. The root causes all involve shortcomings in people’s attitudes and in the quality of their decisions. Education is the means to improve things in the long term.

Tomorrow’s society is shaped by today’s parents and teachers. Bad education and upbringing is where our future problems begin. Good quality education creates the best chance of a socially and economically healthy world. I don’t imagine many people would disagree with those self-evident assertions.

Obviously then, being intelligent folk not intent on self-destruction, we only entrust this most crucial and difficult task — of educating and shaping the next generation — to the brightest and best. Surely, as a nation of sane people wanting a harmonious future, education is our top priority, into which we channel the majority of our resources, right? We don’t? Then I hope the government is going to put that right and turn teaching into the most prestigious and highly-trained of all professions.

What’s that you say about out-of-work soldiers? I thought we were discussing the future of education. Please tell me that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is joking about the new ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme, introduced this month, for fast-tracking ex-military personnel into the classroom! Under the scheme, those leaving the armed forces will be the only people able to start training as a teacher without a degree and be qualified within two years.

I don’t intend to make a party-political point, since I have not seen any recent government give education the priority that it’s due. ‘Troops to Teachers’ is just the latest down-grading of the kudos afforded to academic excellence. According to this policy, being successful in a particular academic subject at school apparently makes you less suitable to teach it than someone who trained for a career in the army.

According to BBC News:

A DfE spokesman stressed that top military specialists often have relevant experience, particularly in science and technology which could help redress the shortage of teachers in some subjects.

Well that’s a relief then. The DfE spokesman says science doesn’t need all the years of methodical rigour that university degrees squander on it. It can be picked up on the job by non-graduates trained to operate some electronic equipment. Now I feel foolish for wasting my time on all that pointless study.

I fear for our children’s prospects in the mathematical sciences if they are taught by people who share the spokesman’s confusion between technological proficiency and scientific education. And, while some schoolchildren would benefit from bootcamp drill, the DfE’s implicit endorsement of military discipline, as an adequate substitute for nurturing critical thinking, is a worrying message.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to disparage military personnel. In fact, I admire them for their extraordinary bravery and unquestioning loyalty. I don’t primarily admire them for their scholarship and child-rearing skills. Undoubtedly, some ex-forces people have those skills and could become excellent teachers. Rightly, they have always had the same opportunities as anyone else to embark on teacher training. But the idea that everyone else is less suitable, requiring more training than an ex-soldier before educating our children, is ridiculous.

This strikes me as a transparent ruse to use our education system to absorb the impact of the recent downsizing of the armed forces. What next? I hear there’s a mounting crisis in hospital overcrowding. Why not fast-track patients into the classroom. I’m sure that, like soldiers, many of them have a rich life-experience to draw upon, so there’s no need to consider their academic achievements.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be facetious about this most crucial and disappointing turn of events. But I begin to wonder whether the government is being facetious when it so often proclaims its commitment to promoting STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and claims to appreciate their importance to our society and economy. STEM subjects require a great deal of dedication, inspirational teaching and uninterrupted hard study by academically gifted people. I would like to see more young people arriving at university well prepared for higher education in the STEM subjects. That would require a real commitment to academic excellence in schools. I can hardly believe I need to say this, Mr Gove: academic excellence is not the same as military training.

Mike Evans

Mike Evans

Dr Mike Evans is a lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Leeds University. His research is on non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, soft matter and complex systems
Mike Evans

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