Schools: Cadet Expansion Programme - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:26 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 5:26 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I strongly agree with everything that the noble Lords, Lord Robathan and Lord Lingfield, have said in praise of cadets. They make a valuable contribution to our national life, to the Armed Forces and to providing a rounded, character-based education for young people. We need more of them—I say that without reservation. The task is to extend these opportunities to more young people. I was fortunate enough to be a cadet at school. I was not desperately good at taking on the enemy on Salisbury Plain or in the Brecon Beacons but I rose to a high level in my CCF because I was in control of all the logistics of getting people to and from camp. This gave me an encyclopaedic knowledge of railway timetables and the issuing of warrants, which was still done manually. Other skills developed from there.

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said about extending these opportunities. Nobody should be forced to do this at school, but they should have the opportunity. As it happened, in my school we had the choice of the scouts or the cadets. I did both and could give a speech on their strengths and weaknesses. The key issue which it would be good for this debate to attend to, and which I hope the noble Earl will say more about in his reply, is how we extend those opportunities, which are very inequitably distributed at the moment. The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, referred to the target of 500. I was Gordon Brown’s Minister for Education and played a part in setting up the objective of every state secondary school having a combined cadet force. Alas, only a tiny fraction do now. The target is very welcome; I do not detract from it. I give credit where it is due to the former Prime Minister for setting it, but it is 500 as a total. At the moment, there are 194 CCFs in private schools. Even if the target is met, nearly half of cadet forces will be in private schools. There will be cadet forces in about 300 of the 3,300 state schools in England—a tiny fraction.

I will say this as diplomatically as I can: there was not wholehearted endorsement from the Ministry of Defence for making the investment required to put more cadet forces in state schools. There was an acute concern then—I hope it is less now—about taking resources away from existing cadet forces. That was couched in terms of not wanting to reduce the efficiency of existing cadet forces and the supply chain that they provide to the Armed Forces, but I am afraid that I could not escape from noting a desire to preserve the status quo in the MoD and not to weaken the links between CCFs and private schools, if that was to be the price paid for extending to state schools more widely.

What I would like to see happen is for the model of the exemplary CCFs we have in private schools to be replicated across the state system, but even if the target of 500 is met it will be replicated in only a tiny fraction of state schools. Teenagers who want to get involved in cadet forces in other schools, which will be the overwhelming majority of state schools, will either not have the opportunity or will have to enter cadet forces in the community. The ACFs also do a great job with great volunteers, but let us be absolutely frank; the opportunities are nowhere near as readily available to young people to take advantage of those forces, compared to those teenagers who actually have cadet forces in their schools.

To understand what this means in terms of follow-through, a freedom of information request which I think the noble Earl’s department has just granted shows that 49% of those who entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst this January came from fee-paying schools. I do not begrudge any of them their opportunity —we need the best people in our armed services and anyone who serves their Queen and country deserves our praise—but I want to see those opportunities extended more widely. I say as diplomatically as I can that I do not think the Ministry of Defence should regard it as the endpoint of our evolution as a society that half of all officer cadets should come from schools which serve 7% of the population. A substantial part of the reason that entry to Sandhurst is so socially and educationally restricted is that opportunities to become cadets are much greater in private schools.

It is not just what the raw figures suggest, with 194 private schools having CCFs compared to 205 state schools. Of course those 194 private schools, in addition to the support of the MoD, which I should say is a straightforward subsidy of those 194 private schools, also make a substantial contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, referred to the one day a week, which is of course not remotely enough to be able to run a CCF. Most private schools will supplement that. They often supplement it very substantially, in terms of the resources and staff they provide. Also, of course, many teachers in those schools—I pay tribute to them—give of their time, or are expected to as part of their commitment to the school, well over and above that one day a week. That tends to happen much less in state schools, and it is not just because there is not the same ethos in state schools, although I think that is true in many of them. It takes time to build up support for a cadet force, but they are also much more stretched, to be frank, and have much less capacity to manage after-school activities. They tend not to be boarding schools—a high proportion of the private schools that have CCFs are boarding schools—so it is much harder to structure CCF activities. The truth is that they need more support if they are going to succeed in establishing and building up CCFs, and I think that that support should be available.

I have two questions for the noble Earl. Would it not be sensible and equitable if there was a redistribution of resources for cadet forces away from private schools and towards state schools? My view is that it is very hard to justify state subsidy to CCFs in private schools. It is not impossible to do so, because to some extent it is helping the process of recruitment into the Armed Forces, but it is hard. At any rate, I certainly do not think that state support for private schools should be in any way increased, whereas I think the case for increasing state support for state schools setting up CCFs—not only setting up new forces but providing more time and support for those state schools—is very strong. At the very least, I think there should be a two-tier system.

My second question echoes that of the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. What happens after the 500 target has been met? My view, going back to the policy of now over a decade ago—alas, we did not make much progress in implementing it—is that every state secondary school should have the right to establish a CCF. This may require a new source of funding beyond existing MoD budgets, but it should be regarded as a significant source of opportunities and character development for young people and not just as a straight military operation.

The Minister will of course not be able to make a commitment of that kind from the Dispatch Box this evening, but I hope he will indicate a willingness to look ambitiously beyond the existing target of 500 once that is met.