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Finally the Phoenix Free School will get the chance to show that 'something can be done'

    Tom Burkard, Education expert, author of 'Something Can be Done' and co-founder of the new Phoenix Free School, blogs on the hard slog to get the school approved and why he believes it can inspire the Department of Education to follow the example across the country. 

    Needless to say, we are delighted that our application to start the Phoenix Free School of Oldham has been approved. We are also pleased that the DfE is encouraging others to follow in our footprints and start more 'military schools'.  We introduced the Troops-to-Teachers concept to Britain with our eponymous 2008 CPS report, and we proposed Phoenix in our 2011 CPS report, “Something Can Be Done: Troops in our schools will do more good than troops in the streets”.

    Unfortunately, we fear that the Government's idea of a 'military school' isn't quite the same as ours. In fact, we never use the term. Although all of our teachers will be veterans of the armed forces, our programme will be modelled on the best independent schools rather than military academies. While we do indeed intend to instil our pupils with the Army's Core Values of courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment, we don't think you need a Combined Cadet Force or a parade ground to do this. Indeed, these values are hardly exclusive to the military. Once upon a time, they were integral to all kinds of training programmes, most notably for nurses. It wasn't entirely accidental that so many soldiers married nurses.

    Of course, we think that Combined Cadet Forces are good things, but they aren't for everyone. We aren't likely to attract many pacifists—at least at first.  But there are a lot of children who don't like ironing creases in combat trousers and bulling boots.  And there are some - like myself - who are hopeless on the parade ground.  And we will have some parents, both Asian and white, whose objections to Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan might make it difficult for them to see their children in uniform. There is nothing remotely dishonourable about this: many men and women now in uniform also opposed these interventions.

    And Phoenix will be a comprehensive school - albeit one as far from Alistair Campbell's 'bog standard' model as possible. We respect and support the right of parents to send their children to independent schools and grammar schools, but we also understand the dangers of a stratified society with limited social mobility. We also understand the enormous power of individuals and institutions that can unify all classes. Nelson's navy was invincible because Nelson himself, while no democrat, passionately believed in the social contract that bound the service together - his loyalty to his men was legendary. The Army doesn't often admit any debts to the Senior Service, but that's where we got our Core Values.

    At Phoenix, we know that we can achieve grammar school standards with a mixed intake. Strangely, the most enthusiastic support for shunting low-achievers into vocational streams can be found in Guardian territory. I was once invited (by mistake) to a conference organised by Polly Toynbee to promote more and earlier vocational education. However, a serious student of history knows this is patronising folly. In the 18th century, foreign visitors to London remarked that even the lowest class of labourers - bootblacks and sweepers - would club together in coffee houses to buy newspapers. I've probably had more interesting and well-informed conversations in the corporal's mess and on building sites than I had in the staff room of a comprehensive where I used to teach.

    In order to achieve these goals, we will have to do a lot more than just instil the Army's Core Values. In the first instance, we have the skills and experience to deal with the basic skills deficits which are endemic in so many urban areas. Competition, which is virtually banned in most schools, motivates pupils far more effectively than patronising lessons designed to 'relate' to celebrities, sport and rap.

    Yet the real secret that will set us apart is an idea I proposed in 2008: The Instructor's qualification for veterans without degrees. Unlike the American forces, where 40% of retiring NCOs have degrees, virtually none of ours do. Michael Gove expressed an interest in putting this to rights, but no doubt he found little enthusiasm in the MOD or DfE for providing Open University courses in the military.

    Nonetheless, the British forces produce some of the finest military instructors in the world - men and women with a natural talent for taking the raw product of our urban comps and turning them into something out of the ordinary. To an extent, this is because they generally come from similar social backgrounds: you won't find them complaining that parents didn't teach their charges any 'respect'. But mostly, it is due to a winnowing process: to become an NCO, you have to prove that you can command the respect of your troops. To become a military instructor, you need to pass a short but exacting course. And of course, the military could not survive if officers and NCOs doubted their moral authority.  Ultimately, in a voluntary force authority is based upon consent, but it is still unquestionably authority. By contrast, the educational profession is led by radical utopians for who the words 'authority' and 'discipline' cause much anguished squirming.

    The idea of retraining ex-NCOs to work in education first came to me when I was on a Regimental Signals Instructors course in 1990, and one of our instructors was a staff sergeant who was nearing retirement after 20 years' service.  He was a superb instructor, even by the Army's standards. Yet when I talked to him, I found out that he was hoping for a second career as a long-distance lorry driver (a job I once did for two weeks before succumbing to terminal boredom and quitting). Even now, retiring NCOs find their skills grossly undervalued.

    At first, I was just laughed at, so I forgot the idea until after I actually became an unqualified teacher myself and started publishing in academic journals. My old Colonel inspired me to persevere, and our success in promoting synthetic phonics taught me that the system wasn't totally impervious to change. And I knew that a lot of what teachers do doesn't require a degree - which is why we have so many teaching assistants these days.  Given structured teaching materials, almost any literate adult can teach basic skills.  Requiring a degree and a teaching qualification for PE teachers is pointless.  And it doesn't take a university education to take attendance registers and maintain pupil data systems. Most importantly, teachers shouldn't have to worry about discipline and pastoral care.

    At Phoenix, our Instructors will all be trained to fill these roles. Our teachers will be free to teach. We've had an enormous amount of support from civilian teachers who understand how liberating this would be for the teaching profession.  Indeed, future Phoenix schools will no doubt employ a fair percentage of civilian teachers - there are only so many former soldiers with degrees in academic subjects and a desire to teach. And we know that the Army is far from being alone in perceiving the moral vacuum at the heart of education in England.

    In October 2011 Affan Burki and I were summoned to a meeting at the DfE to discuss the development of the Instructor's qualification. Nothing ever came of it. In retrospect, it is obvious that there was no enthusiasm for it in the Department, and that their plan for implementation was hopelessly (and possibly deliberately) unrealistic. Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to show that it can be done.  And with any luck, politicians will soon understand what Phoenix is really about.

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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