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Cadets (Maintained Schools)

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 25 January 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

I am delighted to have been given this opportunity to promote the good work of the armed forces, and to raise the subject of the need to increase the number of schools involved with the cadets. I do not have a background of knowledge about the armed forces, but ever since I agreed to be a parliamentary aide to the Secretary of State for Defence nearly two years ago, I have been increasingly impressed by the work that the armed forces do in the community.

It is often said that the armed forces are the best education that many young men and women can get. Our schools have improved over the past few years, but some people still slip through the net. They leave school with few qualifications and no skills. As well as providing those young people with a trade, the armed forces have often helped them to gain qualifications, and have even helped them with the basics of literacy and numeracy. The Army, Navy and Air Force have given many young men and women a basic education, life skills, discipline and a strong sense of identity and self-worth. As well as being an exciting and rewarding career, for many young people being in the armed forces is their education.

It struck me that if the armed forces can help so many young people to succeed once they have left school, why can they not play a greater role while they are still at school? Traditionally, cadet forces have offered many attractions for young people, including the chance to try hill climbing, abseiling and other outdoor sports. Cadet forces have also given them opportunities to learn about subjects such as aviation and engineering, which cannot be offered by mainstream schools. They have given young people a strong sense of belonging to a community, and they have helped to instil them with a sense of self-discipline and respect.

Today, Sir Keith Ajegbo, a former head teacher and a Home Office adviser, published a Government-commissioned report that says that more needs to be done to engage white pupils, particularly those who are working-class. His report says that white pupils can feel just as disfranchised as pupils from other ethnic backgrounds. He says:

“Many indigenous white pupils have negative perceptions of their own identity”.

He continues:

“It makes no sense in our report to focus on minority ethnic pupils without trying to address and understand the issues for white pupils. It is these white pupils whose attitudes are overwhelmingly important in creating community cohesion.”

We could encourage some of those young people to join the cadets to regain their pride and identity and, at the same time, have great fun. The cadets are exactly what many young people need to remain engaged at school and to prevent them from becoming disillusioned, bored and, ultimately, truanting from school. At present, as well as 100,000 cadets in youth groups outside school, there are more than 40,000 cadets based in schools as part of the combined cadet force. That investment in schools costs the taxpayer £80 million a year. More than 200 of the 253 cadet school units, however, are based in independent schools. I shall not go into the reasons for that but, historically, there have always been cadet forces at our top public schools, which have long recognised their educational value.

From the 1980s onwards, funding pressures, perhaps combined with the squeamishness of some teachers in the state sector about the armed forces, meant that the number of units dwindled. It is time for reassessment. Why should those of us who believe in a good state education sector allow public schools to monopolise a programme that could benefit children from less privileged backgrounds? Indeed, it could benefit them even more than it benefits much more affluent children. I appreciate that many teachers are concerned about the issue, and instinctively recoil from anything that smacks of militarism and authority, but I am persuaded that cadet forces offer many young people, particularly white boys, something of real educational value, and I wish that the opportunity to join was more widely available.

The cadets offer a range of activities such as camps, expeditions, exchanges, first aid training and sports, as well as qualifications that are valuable to young people, whatever direction they take. Those qualifications include the Duke of Edinburgh’s award and specialist BTECs offered by the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation, which says on its website:

“CVQO is dedicated to helping both cadets and instructors of the Cadet Forces get ahead personally and professionally. The qualifications on offer have been designed to show employers and educators the wide range of skills that young people and adults learn in the Cadet Forces.”

I was very pleased that the Government have announced a pilot scheme to establish six new combined cadet force units in state schools. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants more young people to join the cadets, as he believes that the programme provides

“an introduction to both military and community service”,

as well as a chance for young people to

“engage in their local communities”.

However, it is about more than that, as it provides an opportunity for our armed forces to give something back to the communities that have traditionally provided many of their recruits.

Many companies and entrepreneurs accept that they have a corporate responsibility to the communities in which they operate. In recent times, various commercial organisations have invested heavily in improvements to young people’s education. For instance, in my own constituency the Conservative peer Lord Harris of Peckham, who is the owner of Carpetright, has just taken over a failing school and transformed it into an academy. After just two terms, we are beginning to see improvements at the Harris Academy Merton. If commercial organisations invest in our young people’s education as part of their commitment to communities, the armed forces, too, should sign up to the principle of corporate responsibility and consider investing in more of our schools.

I have mentioned one of my local secondary schools, but there are three in total, and I am delighted that two are now academies. At the 2005 election, I pledged to turn Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor schools in the east of my constituency in Mitcham, into academies. Both schools have been almost completely rebuilt since 1997, and they now have some of the best facilities anywhere in the country. Previously, however, while other schools in Merton were improving fast, they were in the bottom percentage of schools, both for GCSE results and for the value added to pupils’ education.

Those of us who campaigned for academies received great support from the Department for Education and Skills, particularly from my noble Friend Lord Adonis. In fact, I cannot praise him highly enough because, with his support, we were able to find two excellent sponsors that fit perfectly the needs of the neighbourhoods served by those academies. The Church of England, which has been involved in education for centuries, took over one school, which was renamed the St. Mark’s Church of England academy. The Church of England is perfect for that part of my constituency, because demographic changes have brought many black African communities with a strong Christian faith to Mitcham. They want a local faith school based on Christian values, morality and good behaviour. The new Church of England school therefore appeals to many of those parents. The other school, as I said, is sponsored by Lord Philip Harris of Peckham, the millionaire owner of Carpetright. As a local businessman who sees himself as coming from a very modest background, he, too, is a perfect role model for young people in my constituency, except, of course, for the fact that he is a Conservative peer.

Since becoming academies, both schools have made enormous strides. There has been an immediate change of ethos, there are new uniforms, and there is a new approach to discipline and hard work. Residents tell me that behaviour has improved on the way to and from school. Young people want to work hard and get good results, and they tell me that the atmosphere in class is much more professional. One girl told me that bullying has stopped and she is no longer afraid to go to school. Last year, before they became academies, the two schools received only 132 first choice applications combined for the 480 places available, and overall there were more than 900 unfilled places. However, just last week I learned that they will be oversubscribed next year, such is the support from local parents.

Unfortunately, there is a third school in my constituency. Although the two academies in Mitcham have got off to a fantastic start, Bishopsford community school in the south of my constituency is still struggling. Bishopsford is based in the predominantly white estate of St. Helier. Its latest GCSE results showed just 27 per cent. of pupils passing five or more exams at grade C or above, and if we disaggregate the boys and girls, I suggest that we will find the boys doing much worse. Two weeks ago the school was given a notice to improve by Ofsted, following an inspection in November. If it does not improve, it will be placed on special measures.

Much is already happening to try and improve the school. There is a new head, Andrew Barker, who I am sure will prove a very good appointment, and who I hope will have the support of parents, pupils and teachers. The school has been completely renovated under a private finance initiative programme that has delivered some excellent buildings and playing fields, and it has received extra funding and support under the Fresh Start initiative. But one thing that I have learned from my experience with our academies is that they have been able to improve substantially by changing their identity and ethos. They have to offer something that chimes with the parents and communities around those schools.

What can Bishopsford offer its parents and pupils to make it a more attractive proposition? How can it shine when there are other good schools elsewhere? I have met the director of education at Merton council, the LEA covering Bishopsford, and the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for schools, my noble Friend Lord Adonis, and they have been extremely supportive of plans to improve the school. They have also shown an interest in the potential for involving a cadet force in the school’s improvement plan.

A partnership with the armed forces, through the cadets, would add greatly to the appeal of Bishopsford school, reduce many of its internal problems, and help it compete against other schools in the area. Such a partnership would offer it a new unique selling point that would help it first to survive, and then to thrive. The St. Helier estate on which Bishopsford school is based has strong links with the armed forces. A number of houses and flats have been built for ex-servicemen and women on the Haig Homes housing association estate in Green lane, which is next to St. Helier station. Hundreds of ex-service families live in the community.

The Royal British Legion is one of our most active and welcome community organisations, offering grants and support to former servicemen and women in my constituency. I often refer individual cases of people who come to my advice surgery to the legion, and I find it quick, helpful and extremely supportive. Other regimental charities also frequently help out in cases of hardship and need in the St. Helier area. If the armed forces wish to extend their commitment to the communities in which they operate, I can think of few better contributions they could make than establishing a cadet force at Bishopsford school.

I appreciate the opportunity to praise the cadets and the Government’s commitment to improving young people’s life chances. I hope that this Adjournment debate is useful. I warmly welcome the work that the Government have done to extend the combined cadet forces to more state schools. I believe that many young people, especially working class boys and girls, would like the opportunity to take part in the activities that the CCF offers. The CCF is a further demonstration, if one were needed, of the armed forces’ reputation for offering good educational opportunities. I should like the cadets to be extended to many more state schools as a way of contributing something back to the communities in which they operate. I am not alone in wanting that to happen, and I have spoken to several hon. Friends who are as excited as me about the prospect of extending cadets to more state schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has even gone as far as working towards persuading the armed forces to sponsor a local academy. My noble friend Lord Adonis is also interested in pursuing that idea. I hope that the debate has helped put many of the arguments in favour of it. I hope that Bishopsford school in my constituency might be considered as the base for a new cadet unit in the near future to help it improve the life chances of young people in St. Helier, Mitcham and Morden.

I am grateful for the opportunity to present the case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the Adjournment debate. I am delighted that she is such a keen advocate of our cadets and I was pleased to hear her speak so highly of the tremendous benefits they offer our young people. As she acknowledges, the cadet forces are a genuine success story.

With a membership of some 130,000, the cadets are one of the biggest youth organisations in this country today. They make a huge contribution to local communities and our nation’s youth. I know that they are highly valued by my colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, the Home Office and across Government.

I should like to begin by setting out the structure of our cadet forces. That will help clarify the funding structure. In total, the Ministry of Defence sponsors four separate cadet forces. The vast majority of the funding we provide—some 89 per cent. of the total—goes to the three single service cadet forces: the Sea Cadet Corps, the Army Cadet Force and the Air Training Corps. Together, they account for 88,000 cadets and 24,000 volunteers.

All three cadet forces are community based in more than 3,000 locations in towns and cities throughout the country. Indeed, in many small towns they are the most visible defence presence. There are plenty of opportunities for young people to join their local cadet force—including in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Mitcham and Morden. Any boy or girl who wants to become a cadet in the Morden area can join any of the single service cadet forces. All are well represented in the area.

The fourth cadet force, which receives 11 per cent. of total Ministry of Defence funding, is the combined cadet force. The CCF is based solely in schools and has a further 42,000 cadets with 2,000 volunteers. Today, the establishment of a CCF is open to any school prepared and able to support one. There are 253 CCF contingents based in schools around the country—currently 52 of them are in state schools, but as my hon. Friend knows, the figure will be increased by a further six schools through the new pilot schemes that we have announced.

It may be useful if I explain some of the background. A school CCF can include sections that represent any or all the single services. Indeed, some include Royal Marine detachments. The school chooses the section, and the choice is often based on the preferences of the young people. Each CCF is a partnership between the individual school and the Ministry of Defence, with the head recommending officers and instructors from the school staff. The Ministry of Defence provides training, some equipment and administrative support. However, I stress that the commitment of the school, the pupils, and especially the teaching staff, is critical to the success of the CCF.

The CCF had its origins in boarding schools because those children were not able to join community-based cadet forces. Given that most boarding schools were in the independent sector—although some were state schools—it followed that most CCFs were in independent schools.

I want to make one crucial point, however. My hon. Friend suggested that the majority of Ministry of Defence funding goes to CCFs in those independent schools. That is not the case. In fact, the share of the cadet budget given to independent schools today represents only 9 per cent. of Ministry of Defence expenditure on all cadets throughout the country.

Over the years, CCF units have spread beyond the boarding sector to include other state schools. We want to build on that success to give more children in the state sector the opportunity to benefit from membership of a CCF. That is why we announced a pilot scheme to expand CCF units in the state sector, in an initiative that the Treasury is funding to the tune of an additional £800,000.

The first school to participate in the pilot, Haberdashers’ Aske’s in London, was announced last year. I announced four more schools in England and Wales earlier this month, and we aim to announce the final participant in the pilot—hopefully from Scotland—soon. Those schools were chosen from among those that applied for the scheme, and my hon. Friend may be aware that Bishopsford community school did not apply. I understand the points she made in her speech.

In deciding which schools to select, we had to take into account a number of factors, including geographical spread, the facilities at the school and its capacity to provide the level of commitment from busy teachers and other staff to make the CCF work, as well as the availability of MOD personnel to help with staffing. It was a pretty stringent process—it had to be—and I am confident that the schools we have chosen will give the pilot scheme the best possible prospect of success. I can equally understand the disappointment of the schools and their supporters who were not included in the scheme.

Our pilot scheme will run for three years, which will give us the opportunity to determine demand and our capacity to expand further. We will be working closely with these schools throughout the process, building strong and effective educational partnerships with each contingent and giving as much support as possible. In the meantime, we will also continue to keep in touch with those schools that expressed an interest in having a CCF, so that we can get a clear picture of the demand.

My concern is that a number of the schools successfully involved are already thriving schools that are doing well, so would the Minister look further into the possibility of directing cadet forces into schools that are currently in difficulty and are not achieving the sort of results that the Government would hope for? Perhaps something rather similar to the academy process could be directed.

I clearly understand my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously, we have to have the support of the school and the leadership within it as well as the staff. I will take her comments away with me and consider them in respect of any future schemes that we put forward or, indeed, of any other relevant developments that take place. I take her points on board.

As I was saying, our pilot scheme will run for three years, which will give us the opportunity to determine demand—that is the important thing—and our capacity to expand in future. I was also saying that we will keep in touch with those schools, and I would encourage any school that is applying to log on to the MOD website for further information.

The cadets form a huge and diverse organisation. In fact, I think it is pretty fair to say that there is no such person as a “typical” cadet. What they do have in common is a huge range of opportunities to offer our young people to help them meet the challenges and realise their potential. The cadet forces are the largest operating authority for the Duke of Edinburgh award, and I am not sure that it is widely known that membership gives young people the opportunity to gain nationally recognised qualifications.

The cadets, not just the combined cadet forces, are Edexcel’s most successful partner in the delivery of the BTEC first diploma in public services, and more than 8,000 cadets have so far gained that qualification, which is not widely known. The BTEC is a vocational qualification equivalent to 4 GCSEs at A to C level. It is a qualification that can make a huge difference to a child’s life chances, because without it, nearly half those children would have left school with fewer than five GCSEs. For others, the qualification is enough to provide a vital step-up into further education, or in some cases it has contributed to cadets getting into their university of choice.

The curriculum is expanding all the time. A first diploma in the performing arts has recently been introduced and a BTEC engineering diploma and a team-leading certificate will be launched shortly. All those qualifications are provided at no cost to the cadets taking part. As I said before, we are committed to opening up those opportunities for our young people.

The MOD is playing a key role in driving forward the Government youth agenda. We are working closely with the Youth Justice Board, for example, to explore ways in which the cadet forces can help young people at risk of offending. While the cadets are very much the flagship of the MOD youth agenda, we are also working with other Government Departments—most notably, the DFES—on a number of other initiatives such as the skill force programme, which helps to provide alternative training for young people at risk of exclusion.

We are also working closely with the Home Office on helping vulnerable young people through the outreach programme and on an Army Cadet Force youth and community project, which helps socially disengaged young people to become responsible citizens. The success of the scheme has been independently evaluated by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, showing an 85 per cent. improvement in school attendance and community behaviour. These results are excellent. I should add that the Home Office’s historically important funding of this project also makes an important contribution.

These are exciting times for the cadet forces. Their potential and importance has been recognised across government, and they represent a success story that we want to carry forward. But let us not forget that this success owes much to a very special group of people: the adults who devote a huge amount of time and energy to running cadet forces up and down the country. Each and every one is deeply committed, and we are very grateful for the work they do, as it really does make a difference to the lives of so many young people.

It is almost 150 years since the first cadet units were formed. I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will agree that the cadet force continues to make a tremendous contribution to young people, their families and communities, and to society itself. I would urge all Members of the House to support their local cadet units, whatever uniform they wear.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Seven o’clock.