Remembrance is now a brand – what place does it have in schools?

The visibility of Remembrance within the public realm has grown significantly over recent years. This has been driven by the Royal British Legion, which raises nearly £42million with the Poppy Appeal, almost twice the amount of a decade ago.

Activities associated with the appeal now extend into entertainment, shopping, the Poppy Lottery, and education. The British Legion claims the brand position of “national custodian of Remembrance” and much of its marketing has created a sense of moral imperative around displays of support for the appeal.

This imperative, and concern over the tone of much of the British Legion’s marketing, has sparked debate about the place of remembrance in the public realm.

However, there has yet to be a significant public discussion about the place of remembrance within education, although an important opener was provided last year by David Aldridge, working in Philosophy of Education at Oxford Brookes University with his paper How Ought War to be Remembered in Schools?

This paper explored how a complex and value laden concept such as remembrance fits into education. He notes the danger that: ‘The weight of past sacrifice is used to legitimise contemporary conflicts in which soldiers continue to die alongside the historical fallen”, which, “could discourage students from thinking critically about the legitimacy of this nation’s involvement in current conflicts and other conflicts in the future”.

Aldridge also argues that the role of “charitable bodies with an interest in remembrance” should be limited, stating: “The ubiquity of charitable slogans and images undermines the educationally justifiable aim of conveying the horror of war. Other charitable causes, furthermore, are more worthy of nationwide exposure.”

This conclusion takes on added significance in the context of other developments in education, which has become an important site for the promotion of the military’s interests. This is evident in cadet units in schools, visits by the armed forces to schools and colleges to promote their careers or run activities, and the promotion of ‘military ethos’ by alternative education providers using a military framework.

These agencies, run by ex-military staff, operate in primary as well as secondary schools; they conduct whole-class activities as well as provide an alternative to mainstream education for students at risk of failing.

Since 2012, the Department for Education (DfE) has awarded a staggering £31 million of new funding to these “military ethos” projects, and to the Troops to Teachers scheme, and a further £14 million of joint funding with the Ministry of Defence has been awarded to the Cadet Expansion Scheme. George Osborne also pledged a further £50 million in his post-election budget to expand cadets into 500 state schools.

Many of the new breed of state schools for 14-18 year olds, University Technical Colleges, which focus education around the needs of employers, are sponsored by a part of the armed forces. Others involve the arms industry including big players such as BAE and Chemring.

The military is on the curriculum, again

Military interests are also being promoted through curriculum materials. In addition to the British Legion’s remembrance packs sent to every school, the armed forces produce their own resources and the Army sends “soldiers to schools” to support teaching on the First World War. The DfE collaborated with the Ministry of Defence and the prime minister’s Office to promote The British Armed Forces Learning Resource, to every school in 2014.

This resource, produced without the input of teachers and criticised by educationalists, is perhaps the clearest example of how, if left unchecked by professional insight and oversight, powerful interest groups whose agendas are different, and even at odds with those of education, can be allowed privileged and unbalanced access to students in education.

How many more military activities, commemorations, celebrations and values will schools be asked to absorb as the season of remembrance and recognition extends year-round? Furthermore, as our new report shows, there is a complete absence of a compulsory and organised curriculum of peace education within UK schools, despite some good work being done by civil society providers.

In 2008 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended the UK government develop a programme “of peace education and human rights as a fundamental subject”. The government has failed to do so, stating it “does not prescribe what schools should teach”. Such a programme could provide much needed balance to the pro-military messages and help to develop young people’s awareness of alternatives to armed conflict.

The ForcesWatch report on peace education and the promotion of the armed forces in UK schools can be read here.

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