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A military ethos in schools - 'why would this model be any less appropriate or effective in a school or any other organisation?'

Posted on: 10 Apr 2018
Posted by: Mark Mortimer

Mark Mortimer, headmaster at Warminster School, argues that a military ethos at schools is not about discipline but, instead, a meaningful, collective and unifying vision that binds people together and, in doing so, inspires and motivates.

Last week, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is looking into the benefits that a military ethos might bring to British schools. As the paper’s reporter wrote, ‘Mr Williamson proposes that the Armed Forces’ values of discipline, teamwork and leadership could inspire our young people.’


I spent 8 years as an infantry officer in the British Army before becoming a teacher. Many of the soldiers in the rifle platoon and company I commanded came from disadvantaged backgrounds and had not enjoyed, succeeded or even behaved at school. And yet, the great majority of them thrived in the military environment. I particularly remember one eighteen year old who joined the Battalion just before we deployed to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, accompanied by a file full of his misdemeanours at school and as a civvy. Within 12 months he had been promoted to lance corporal and was an outstanding soldier and leader.


Many of those who have criticised the Defence Secretary’s proposal do so because of a complete lack of understanding of the modern military ethos. The army does not rely on blind obedience and harsh discipline. Neither does it want to turn out unthinking lemmings who ‘worship conformity’ as the Daily Telegraph put it. In fact, the army believes strongly in developing soldiers who think creatively and independently. Of course, conformity and cohesion matter too, but rather than from fear, these aspects stem from a clear and convincing vision that gives meaning to the work of everyone.


To my mind, that’s the key bit: the military ethos is not about discipline, it’s about a meaningful, collective and unifying vision that binds people together and, in doing so, inspires and motivates. Selfless commitment, integrity, self-discipline, loyalty, moral courage, respect for others. These are six of the British Army’s stated values. It is not the only organisation to espouse such values – plenty of our schools do likewise – but they are essential to the army’s effectiveness. An infantry unit is pretty close-knit. It is a community of practice in which everyone is encouraged to share beliefs and values, to work together and in the interests of others. A clear vision, or collective purpose, in which every person knows his or her role and responsibility, is also vital; such unity – camaraderie - is also a very powerful motivator of individual performance. Mutual trust and loyalty (both up and down) are other key components. These values are constantly reinforced and authentically exemplified and emphasised.


Why would this model be any less appropriate or effective in a school or any other organisation? All organisations are populated by human beings, after all (notwithstanding the coming of robots!). It is about human behaviour, a sense of belonging, of getting the best out of people as individuals but also as a team, developing a sense of the duty of service, as well as resilience, determination, compassion and empathy.

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About Mark Mortimer

Mark Mortimer is head of Warminster School, a coeducational day and boarding school in Wiltshire.