Organisations with cultures steeped in tradition and who put virtue into practice on a daily basis, are a central figure for our national character. As part of National Armed Forces Day we should consider the ethos, values and leadership principles of the Services as a significant force for good not just for our national security but across our society. In effect, the Armed Forces have been the masters of creating a ‘character factory’ for centuries. Through methods of principle centred leadership, one of which, Mission Command, I speak about in the Power of Character at some length, they are experts at translating virtue into action through purposeful and repetitive practice – having clear structures, rituals and routines and reinforcing them relentlessly – epitomising the way we can all form new behavioural habits leading to positive changes in our character.

Classicists like Aristotle had been proselytising that “excellence is an art won by training and habituation,” that “we do not act rightly because we have virtue, but we have virtue because we have acted rightly” as far back as the third century BC. Aristotle saw character as a set of virtues that a person worked upon, acts that they refined across their lives. It was his contention that the character of a man was shaped and fashioned by the acts he performed and the ways in which he behaved across his life – the ‘good life’ was one driven by the pursuit of excellence and governed by virtue and rationality, “We are what we repeatedly do,” he declared. “Excellence is not an act but a habit.” Having worked in schools in significant urban challenge since leaving the military, I know first-hand how the Armed Forces ‘can do’ attitude can inspire and give confidence to the academic and personal lives of students who need it the most, in particular our schools serving areas of the greatest social and cultural challenges. This would be my very own lightbulb moment of 2009 and be my reason to return into education:

In my final tour with the RAF as a staff officer, consulting on methods of basic training for new recruits, I had been struck by just how many young people had been failed by their education. Men and women, mainly aged between 16 and 21, had regularly arrived at our base at RAF Halton with few qualifications and little investment in their studies – but it was my experience that, after only a few weeks in the rigid, demanding structure of the military, these same recruits could become professional, principle driven airmen and airwomen who left their formal training bursting with pride. 

The structure, strictness, routines and rituals of the RAF appeared to me to be transforming these young people in a way that 12 to 14 years of formal education had failed to do. Why, I had begun to wonder, couldn’t this be done earlier in a student’s life? How did a culture of authority and discipline steeped firmly in tradition create such loyal and principle driven people? What was it about aligning and abiding to an oath, putting the service of your country before the interests of oneself that had such a transformative effect on the purpose and mission in life of these young recruits? What was it about these authoritative role models that were transforming these young people through the power of emulation whilst equipping them with the mind-set that they can learn, breaking any cycle from their formal education that said that they couldn’t? Why couldn’t the principles behind the way the military helped challenging recruits be transferred into some of the toughest schools in our country? These were the thoughts that had first ushered me towards the field of urban education.

 If the gruelling processes of basic training could turn raw recruits into the kind of focused, driven individuals I had seen happening time and time again in the RAF and also through my wider work with the British Army and Royal Navy, what would an analogous process do for children at school – and what might that look like? Could the answer, I began to think, be found in something so simple, and yet so fundamental, as character?”

Character is not an ‘off the shelf’ curriculum programme, it has to be underpinned by a culture and ethos founded upon strong beliefs and values and then having the roles models who emulate these same principles day in day out as a powerful force for positive behaviour change. The lessons for how our armed forces do it could be a critical catalyst in transforming urban education.

“Throughout the course we were immersed into the culture of the RAF, a culture founded on a set of prescribed qualities that is expected of everyone who wears the uniform. It was this sharp focus that helped transform raw recruits into efficient members of the service as each of us modelled our new behaviours and patterns of thinking by emulating those who led our training. High expectations, strict discipline, and the pressure of peers also helped but none of that could have existed without being underpinned by a clearly defined set of values in which all recruits had to invest. These virtues were imparted to us through the use of a common language and typology of virtue throughout training via stories, case studies and role models. Although only formed in 1918, everywhere you walked in RAF Cranwell was steeped in history, buildings and rooms named after past leaders who embodied the key virtues of the service. To put it simply, alignment to the rasion d’etre was in constant sight”.

Yet there remains a major problem in state education, most prevalent in state urban education, and is one which I elude to in my book The Power of Character. I term it Education 1.0, otherwise known as the ‘quick fix culture’ and here is an example:

“Having come from a military culture, where order and routine was king and strict discipline key to the smooth running of the organisation, my first foray into education left me wondering whether the move had been a sensible one. Here was a school where order was absent, where the students were effectively left in charge while the teachers strove to survive their days. Sanctions against unruly children were loosely enforced, students walked the corridors whenever they felt like not being in lessons, basic respect between teachers and students had eroded to the point where expletives and abusive language abounded and where violence was not uncommon. To me, steeped in military culture, this all boiled down to a lack of aspiration and basic social norms.

In an environment in which schools are being measured by exam results, with careers on the line, it is perhaps natural that school leaders relentlessly zone in on how they can inflate those statistics and we have already seen the lengths to which our school leaders will go in the service of this quest. Yet, might it be that there is a way of improving our schools’ performances by resisting the slippery slopes of the quick fix culture? What if adjusting our focus to the values underpinning our schools, committing to emotional intelligence alongside academic rigour could give our students the foundations to flourish?”

It often a cliché of the baby boom and ‘X’ generations to pass comment on how our young ‘millennials’ would benefit from the discipline and strict lifestyle of the Armed Forces. Yet, schools which have a strong ethos and value system, promote high expectations through strong discipline, routines and structures (which may even include military ethos programmes) are certainly not about creating “boot camps”, nor are they about “recruitment” for our Armed Services. I do however feel strongly that society, and in particular our young, can learn a lot from British military values and ethos and all schools can benefit from the unique resources of our Services. The quote at the front of our combined cadet force manual eludes to this very fact perfectly:

“Where else could you learn to fly aerobatics, visit Royal Air Force Stations, tour foreign countries, play sports from local to international level, learn the skills to lead expeditions, become a target shooting marksman, gain your Duke of Edinburgh Awards, canoe through white water, assist your community, join a band, learn aviation subjects, go caving, parachute, climb, sail, ski…? These and much more are readily available to you as a cadet.”

Air Commodore Jon Chitty OBE.

It was for these reasons that the Great School Trust remains one of (if not the only) educational trust to have a cadet force in each of its schools, with each academy focused first and foremost on character and leadership development. Yet for too long, these benefits have been the preserve of the few rather than the many.  Cadet forces in our schools originated in 1859 at our elite private schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Rossall and Winchester, to inspire and train the next generation of military officers. By 2013, private and grammar schools, whilst accounting for less than 10% of all schools, educated the vast majority of the school cadet forces nationally. The message was clear: privilege bred privilege and it is little wonder why most of the places on officer recruit programmes to this day are still taken by those from the most privileged of upbringings.

The Cadet Expansion Programme however serves to change this. Started in 2014, with a goal of establishing a further 243 new cadet forces by 2020, predominantly from state schools in areas of significant urban deprivation and challenge, military ethos programmes now have an opportunity to be an incredible force for good for both social cohesion and social mobility. And the results could be truly impressive because of the high expectations for all approach the military takes.

“In stark contrast, the military training system I had left behind as an adult had taken me onto its officer programme having had no prior military experience at school or at university, nor any family ties to the service whatsoever. By the end of the programme, I had to meet exactly the same level of output standard as a fellow cadet who had grown up in the service; a fellow cadet who had been a part of the cadets whilst at school and had gained military sponsorship whilst at university. In the end, it just meant my learning curve was longer and far steeper, yet with belief, hard work, repeated practice and feedback (mixed with good old-fashioned military wit) it was achievable. Yet, the education system appeared to be doing the exact opposite – it was breeding a culture of mediocrity, the nod of approval to say that when you arrived at your pre-set, pre-determined level predicated on what you had achieved by age 11 or 14, it was okay to stop learning and improving as there was nothing higher to achieve, unless of course you were classed as gifted and talented”.

The next challenge for the trust will be ways of integrating our most disaffected students educated in a new Alternative Provision Unit from September into the cadet forces to help turn them into professional, respectful team members. For many of these students – lack of role models, a disruptive home life, a lack of aspiration in those around them – many find themselves setting off on the wrong path. Yet, setting clear structures, rituals and routines and reinforcing them relentlessly through the vehicle of leadership could lead to significant positive changes in their character.

It has been a great privilege to watch the impact on social cohesion and social mobility of our military ethos programmes in each of the trust’s academies. Regardless of background or starting point, the provision is exactly the same – values, character, leadership and academics!


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