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Values and discipline are the foundation of a military ethos but do not need to be ‘military’ to be effective

Posted on: 18 Apr 2018
Posted by: Thomas Garnier

Thomas Garnier, headmaster of Pangbourne College and a former Royal Navy Officer, believes there is a need for schools to put values, discipline, service and teamwork at the heart of their ethos.

Comments recently made by the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, regarding the potential benefits of a military ethos in British schools have caused some division within the education sector. Much of the opposition appears to be based on a scepticism of uniformity and conformity or an antipathy towards harsh discipline, both of which views demonstrate a highly inaccurate understanding of the ethos of the Armed Forces. The truth is that a military ethos and the ethos of a good school committed to the all-round development of its pupils are not as different as some people imagine.


A military ethos is one which is constructed on a foundation of strong shared values and disciplined behaviour which is for the common good; it is the antithesis of an individual way of thinking and is built on the concept of service. Military training is indeed very challenging, both physically and mentally, and new recruits to the Armed Forces have to learn quickly to think not of themselves but of the team and the other individuals who, with them, belong to it. As selfishness comes naturally to all, this reorientation of mindset is, for many, anything but comfortable. New skills have to be learned and the requirement to ensure safety often demands uniformity and conformity - weapon training is an obvious example, but the operation of complex equipment also comes to mind. However, throughout the training process, and indeed at every stage of an individual’s military career, the ability to think clearly in complex situations and to solve problems, to exercise good judgement and initiative, and the importance of thinking about the needs of others are strongly encouraged. Over the last two decades, in particular, there has also been a shift in the method of instruction towards coaching, with benefits that any good teacher will immediately understand.


Discipline in the absence of strong values does indeed risk sliding towards bullying, which is what the opponents of a military ethos might reasonably wish to avoid - some well-publicised but isolated incidents at training establishments have led to an unfortunate ‘tarring with the same brush’ of the majority. However, the Military Values of respect for others, courage (including moral courage), commitment, loyalty, discipline (which begins with self-discipline), selflessness and integrity, coupled with the strong focus on service, teamwork and leadership, act as a strong preventative. There is a sense of self-righteousness in the criticism directed towards the military in some school circles but the pastoral care systems which are now highly developed in schools were in fact pre-dated by the divisional system introduced to the Royal Navy in 1755 by Vice Admiral Thomas Smith. Ships’ companies were organised into smaller groups of men, each under the oversight of a junior officer, to improve efficiency, communication and better to care for the health and well-being of each man. The system is still in use today and it is easy to see parallels with the tutorial or form system now used in every school.


Pangbourne College was founded over 100 years ago as The Nautical College, Pangbourne, for the purpose of training future Merchant and Royal Navy Officers. From the outset, it had what was recognisably a military ethos, with strong institutional values, a commitment to service, teamwork and leadership and, for at least 50 years, the majority of its students (cadets, as they were known then) went on to serve at sea or in one of the uniformed services. In 1969 the school was reconstituted as an educational charity and now has the object of providing an excellent all-round education to boys and girls; nearly all go on to places at university and then on to a very wide range of careers, with very few interested in following the path of their predecessors. However, the emphasis on values - ours are kindness, selflessness, moral courage, industry, initiative, resilience and integrity, obviously similar to the Military Values listed above - and the culture of service, teamwork and leadership remain, because we believe they are timeless and are what the country and world needs. I have no difficulty in agreeing with the sentiments which the Defence Secretary expressed that if implemented in a school context, these can confer considerable benefit.


I suspect Pangbourne is one of a very small number of schools which have an ethos which has obviously been shaped by the so-called military ethos - our students still wear a naval uniform, for example, and there is a strong ceremonial tradition; all take some part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and the Combined Cadet Force, and the Sixth Form leadership programme is well-developed. Many schools, however, can justifiably claim to have an ethos which is focused on all round development and have, at their heart, an emphasis on the character of their pupils that is seen as being as important as their intellectual development. This is true of the best schools within both the independent and state sectors. Values and discipline are evident in each, even though there is nothing obviously military about them.


The challenge for other schools, if they find the idea attractive (or government decides to impose it on them), is how to develop such an ethos themselves. My contention is that it does not have to be ‘military’ in flavour, and to impose such a flavour on a school in a context where there is either strong antipathy towards the military or the staff do not sufficiently understand what such an ethos means is likely to end in failure. But all schools can take steps to agree (between staff, pupils and parents) a common set of character values (the Military Values are a good place to start) and a commitment to one another. All schools can take steps to agree (between staff, pupils and parents) a set of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and put systems in place to reinforce them. Once done, all that is needed is perseverance and consistency - new initiatives often need a ‘generation’ (one cohort of pupils passing through the school from bottom to top) to take root fully. I once heard Professor Bart McGettrick, Emeritus Professor of Education at Glasgow University, say, “Time spent on values is not time wasted...It is like the tide rising: everything rises with it!” My own experience at Pangbourne confirms that he is correct.


At a time in which Britons seem increasingly selfish, divided and less committed to the common good, there is a need for schools to put values, discipline, service and teamwork at the heart of their ethos. I do not believe it is necessary, however, for them to have a military ethos, although there is much that is positive that can be learned from the Armed Forces and the way that they develop and care for their people.

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About Thomas Garnier

Thomas Garnier is headmaster of Pangbourne College.