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Cadet Expansion Programme

Volume 747: debated on Monday 18 March 2024

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Suzanne Webb.)

It is a huge privilege to lead tonight’s Adjournment debate on the cadet expansion programme, and I am grateful to the Minister for responding to it.

Almost exactly 40 years ago, when I was a young Army cadet in Guildford, the combined cadet force at my school deployed to Okehampton for its Easter camp. During that week, cadets participated in a night navigation exercise across the notorious Dartmoor. Given the cold weather and awful terrain, that would have been a challenge at any time, but we had barely left Okehampton when thick fog engulfed us, to the point that you could not see your hand in front of your face. Sensing the danger, the three of us in my group used all the training that we had been given not just to get off the moor, but to complete the exercise together.

The young cadets alongside me were Hamish Walker and Graham Atkinson. I will never forget the experience. Anyone who is familiar with military service will know that heightened sense of vigilance and excitement when travelling cross-country at night. Totally confident in what the map and compass were telling us, and meticulously counting our paces, we worked together to double-check our navigation and agree every decision we made—this was long before sat-nav. We were utterly blind because of the fog, but we trusted our instincts, training and the compass needle, and that potent combination of teamwork, resilience, informed judgement, competitive spirit and confidence that one gets with military service saw us succeed against the odds, even as 13-year-old kids.

This, however, was typical of what cadets still do. Whether abseiling down dams, building shelters, learning to ski or shoot, escaping from a capsized canoe, preparing an ambush or cooking in the field, the skills I acquired as an Army cadet, for five years at school and for a further three years in the university officer training corps, were pivotal to everything I am today. While the cadet movement does not exist to recruit people for a military career, it was so formative for me that it gave me the skills to thrive at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which I now represent as the local MP, and throughout a 27-year military career. My response to almost everything that has been asked of me since leaving the cadets probably has its foundation in my time with the cadets, so it has made a huge difference to me personally.

What of the cadet forces themselves? The Ministry of Defence sponsors five different types of cadet forces. The sea cadet corps, the volunteer cadet corps, the Army cadet force and the air training corps are single service in nature, not tied to schools, but the fifth, the combined cadet force, offers more tri-service balance and is hosted in schools, with adult volunteers often coming from the teaching staff. All these units are voluntary organisations that offer challenging and enjoyable activities for young people, and prepare them to play an active role in their community while developing life skills. While they do model their traditions and ethos on their parent service, they are not actually part of HM forces and do not of course have any formal military role.

The sea cadets consist of over 14,000 young people and 5,000 adult volunteers in 400 units across towns, cities and ports, undertaking activities such as sailing, boating and coastal navigation. The volunteer cadet corps offers something very similar, but is more tightly connected to naval families. It consists of around 460 cadets and 150 volunteers, located in eight naval bases across southern England and Scotland. The Army cadet force has over 37,000 cadets and 9,000 adult volunteers, and it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010. The fourth of the non-school units is the air training corps, which consists of over 44,000 cadets and volunteer staff in over 900 squadrons across the UK, encouraging participants to take an active interest in aviation and the Royal Air Force.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward the debate; we spoke beforehand. The schools cadet expansion programme in Northern Ireland has gone from success to success, with Kilkeel High School in the constituency neighbouring my Strangford constituency becoming the newest cadet force. This week, 139 pupils from schools across Northern Ireland entered the cyber-skills challenge competition, which is fantastic. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Northern Ireland is very much setting the targets for other cadet forces across the United Kingdom to try to match up to? Does he also welcome the fact that almost as many Roman Catholics are now joining the cadet forces in Northern Ireland as Protestants?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and I completely agree. What is happening in Northern Ireland is an exemplar for the cadet movement. It is quite something that we have a balance between Catholic and Protestant children in these units. This is about cohesion and community, and what is happening over there is commendable.

As for the combined cadet force, units exist in over 260 schools across the UK. Traditionally, they are the preserve of independent schools, with over 200 of them hosting detachments, but there are now at least 60 units in state schools too. They offer young students a broad range of exciting, adventurous and educational activities that complement the normal school curriculum during the evening, at weekends and during the holidays. Like the other cadets units, they help to develop personal responsibility, leadership, teamwork and self-discipline. In my view, it is no coincidence that many young cadets emerge to be highly successful in their chosen career fields.

In Berkshire, I am proud that we have a strong pedigree with the military presence there. I could again mention the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, the headquarters of 77 Brigade at Hermitage, the Household Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards in Windsor, 7 Rifles in Reading and so much more, but I really want to highlight the Royal County of Berkshire Army cadet force. This currently supports over 600 cadets and 120 adult volunteers in 18 detachments, many of which I see on Remembrance Sunday and at special events alongside the lord lieutenant. I give a big shout-out for 7 Platoon in Bracknell, which does so much locally, trains and plays hard in equal measure, and always looks so smart.

While we do not, sadly, have a sea cadets unit in my constituency, Bracknell is home to 2211 Squadron of the Air Training Corps. I met several of the cadets recently, and it never ceases to amaze me just how much is on offer. It is even possible for cadets to go flying and set themselves up to gain pilot licences. To anyone watching from Bracknell Forest I say: please do consider joining the Army Cadet Force or Air Training Corps locally; it is a real opportunity.

As for the Combined Cadet Force, there are two detachments in my constituency. Wellington College has an established military presence and a proud history of service. While I have not yet been invited to visit, it is a good one by reputation. At Brakenhale School in Bracknell, I have watched with wonder as a fledgling detachment has evolved under the superb leadership and vision of both Second Lieutenant Bury and Second Lieutenant Gildersleve. Getting that off the ground from virtually nothing is quite an achievement, and the detachment serves as an exemplar for the cadet expansion programme, with over 100 pupils in Bracknell now being given the opportunity to wear uniform, train with the British Army, get adventure training and learn life skills that they may otherwise not have done. I cannot commend Brakenhale School enough for everything that it is doing, and I am looking forward to the annual inspection later this year.

So what of the cadet expansion programme itself? It was first launched on Armed Forces Day in June 2012 by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, with the aim of delivering 100 new cadet units in English state-funded schools by September 2015. This target was reached six months early, in March 2015, and following that achievement, the Government committed an extra £50 million from LIBOR fines to further increase the number of cadet units in schools across the UK, bringing the total to 500 by 2020. Phase 3 is now under way, and the Minister is sure to provide a progress report later.

The cadet expansion programme is part of the Government’s aim of promoting the military ethos in schools; instilling values in young people that will help them to get the most out of their life and contribute to their community; and fostering those essential qualities of resilience, independence and teamwork that will assist young people on their chosen career path. Mirroring what has already been achieved in the private sector, state schools that have set up cadet units are offering significant benefits to their young people; there are also benefits to the school and the local community. Headteachers report that they have seen significant improvement in attendance and behaviour, attainment, commitment, self-confidence and discipline, and that relationships between staff and students have improved. The sense of pride that some students feel is also palpable, and given that the Government are a champion of aspiration, opportunity, ambition and enterprise, I want to see this programme developed further and faster, so that all pupils, irrespective of their background, can have better access to these superb opportunities.

Before I close, I want to highlight a number of areas where I feel that we can do better. First and foremost, it would be massively positive for all our adult volunteers to be given a financial incentive for their time. Not only would that be positive for recruitment and retention, but it would send a clear signal that the Ministry of Defence is taking the broader benefits more seriously. Our volunteers are the lifeblood of the cadet movement, and it would be remiss of me not to formally thank and pay tribute to everyone who runs our detachments for their huge contribution.

We should invest more in our cadet infrastructure, repair our older halls, build new ones and provide better facilities such as ranges and accommodation. It goes without saying that higher operating costs should be mitigated, that more transport should be made available, that more opportunities should be provided to train alongside our regular forces, and that better adventure training and more updated equipment should be made available. While it is a considerable outlay for the Ministry of Defence to provide uniforms, weapons and personal kit, it should be possible for serviceable ex-military equipment that would otherwise be disposed of to be provided to cadet units. Closer tie-ups with regular and reserve units through the affiliation process should help to ensure that greater localised support is available for those detachments that need it.

Lastly, as someone who got so much out of the Combined Cadet Force and Officers’ Training Corps, I was always hugely privileged to visit and inspect local cadet units in Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire, particularly when serving as a commanding officer in Aldershot and at Sandhurst. Our cadets are our future, and whether they choose to join His Majesty’s forces or not, their service in uniform will leave a lasting legacy throughout their lifetime, and their personal skills will be called upon, as were mine.

I also wish to thank the many organisations that continue to enable the cadet movement, not least: our single-service branches, such as the cadets branch at Army Headquarters Regional Command in Aldershot, which forms part of home command; the national cadet training centre at Frimley Park, which does so much to train our adult volunteers; and our reserve forces and cadet associations, or RFCAs, which support our cadet forces so well behind the scenes. Indeed, today I am wearing the distinctive tie of the South East Reserve Forces and Cadet Association, which I have worked alongside for many years; I ask them to please keep up the great work locally.

I conclude by paying tribute to the other youth movements across the UK that do so much to promote the essential values that we have commended this evening. They are far too numerous to list, so I hope that I can be forgiven for not doing so, but we have the police cadets, St John Ambulance cadets, the scout and guide movement, venture scouts, youth sports clubs, young Crusaders, religious clubs, breakfast and after-school clubs, environmental groups, online networks, voluntary organisations and at least 8,000 more established groups than can easily be found with a quick search online.

I am often told by parents and teachers in my constituency that there is nothing for young people to do locally, that the Government are not doing enough, that that is a key reason for antisocial behaviour, and that many are bored. My answer is usually the same—“Really?”—but while there is always more that we can and must do locally and nationally, we should also be proud of what we have, not least in our cadet forces. Extending such opportunities more broadly across our society is a complete no-brainer for so many reasons, and I hope that the Minister will not disappoint us.

What a pleasure it is to respond to the contribution of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) this evening. I hope that we will be able to reflect on a huge success in our country. It is a wonderful thing for our communities to have cadets. I have seen them in my constituency, and they are an important part of the local fabric, supporting occasions from Remembrance Sunday to Armed Forces Day and beyond. We are lucky to have them.

I pay particular tribute to the volunteers who make that possible. So many of our institutions have, I am afraid, suffered as a result of the pandemic, and it has been extremely difficult for them to get going again, yet cadets seem to have bounced back and be flourishing, and the reason is that there are people who are prepared to give up their time and shoulder a fair amount of inconvenience to serve their communities in that way. We all owe them a great deal.

The benefits that our cadet programmes offer to young people and society as a whole are well known and well rehearsed. I agree wholeheartedly that the MOD-sponsored cadet forces provide brilliant opportunities for our young people. They have been catalogued by academics from the University of Northampton, to whom I am grateful for their rigorous appraisal, which gives scientific objectivity to what we all understand instinctively to be the case, namely that cadets are a force for good.

Participation in cadets has been shown to build character, self-discipline and self-reliance. It improves teamworking, problem solving, leadership and social skills. It provides a boost for physical and mental health—benefits that I am sure my hon. Friend will know about from his time as a cadet, which he described so well. I have to say that my time was not quite as happy as his. I remember joining the air cadets briefly. I was told I was going to fly aircraft. After about two months, it dawned on me that that was not going to happen; it would be marching up and down for as long as I could put up with it, which was not very long. I have to say that I parted company from the cadets much sooner than my hon. Friend, but there it is. I am sure it benefited me on some level.

Headteachers of schools that have established cadet units report that their cadets have improved attendance and academic attainment, as well as behaviour and self-confidence. Some headteachers use cadets as a central part of their strategy to reduce exclusions. Cadet programmes are also a gateway to new skills, new qualifications, and even employment. They are also a valuable way of making young people aware of the further opportunities available in defence and defence-related industries, although, as my hon. Friend made clear, cadet forces are not meant to be recruiting tools. As our military footprint has shrunk, however, cadets have assumed an even more important role in at least providing some sort of presence in many communities where otherwise there would be none. They benefit the whole of society by building links between different communities, boosting social mobility, and strengthening young people’s resilience to becoming involved in antisocial behaviour, criminality and even extremism. In short, joining the cadets is a springboard to success, as well as being a powerful engine for social mobility and levelling up.

The cadet expansion programme is a joint Ministry of Defence and Department for Education initiative to expand cadet participation in schools. It has been a fantastic success since its launch by the then Prime Minister 12 years ago. By March 2015, ahead of schedule, the Government reached their target of establishing 100 new combined cadet force units in state secondary schools in England. In November 2019, again ahead of schedule, we reached our further target of establishing 500 new cadet units across the United Kingdom.[Official Report, 21 March 2024, Vol. 747, c. 10MC.] (Correction) Funded with £50 million from LIBOR fines, the expansion programme benefits many schools in less affluent areas.

To give renewed impetus to the programme, the Government had by this time outlined a further aspiration to increase the number of cadets in school units to 60,000 by April 2024. However, cadet units require a significant amount of personal commitment from school leaders and volunteers, and in spite of successes, about 50 of the units established since 2012 have failed, often as a result of changes to a school’s leadership or priorities. That is a pity, but it in no way detracts from the leadership and drive of school teams that have advanced the cadet programme, to whom I pay tribute. As we approach April 2024, although cadet numbers in schools have increased by 15% since April 2020 to more than 54,000, it is clear that covid has had an impact on this as on so much of our national life, and that we will not reach our 60,000 aspiration within the challenging timeframe that we set.

However, it is not only the direct impact of the pandemic that has slowed progress. In addition to cadet activities being halted or limited by covid restrictions, participation has been affected by the resulting change in school priorities, with many understandably reorientating themselves from extra-curricular activities to prioritise catching up on lost learning. Given this context, the fact that we have already achieved 90% of our ambition to have 60,000 cadets in schools is a great credit to every individual and school involved in our expansion programme.

We have also made progress on a number of other fronts to provide the greatest support for school cadet units that we can. In the last year, we have developed a Combined Cadet Force engagement and communication framework. We have worked with the single-service cadet forces to improve the delivery model, and have extended funding for regional school cadet expansion officers. According to a report produced by academics at the University of Northampton, more than 91% of headteachers surveyed considered their cadet units to be a good investment for their schools, and a whopping 98.9% reported an improvement in the resilience of participants. Most recent estimates have calculated the cost of participation at £836 per cadet, and I call that a fantastic value-for-money investment in their future, our future, and the future of our country. However, Members do not have to take my word for it: the academics who conducted the study concluded that

“school based cadet units are delivering excellent value for money”—

as well they should, given that the estimate of the Institute for Public Policy Research is that the cost of just one school exclusion is £392,000.

One impressive thing about the cadet force in my constituency is that there are as many young girls there as young boys, whether we are talking about the Army, sea or Air Force cadets. It is encouraging to see that, and I know that the Minister would like that, too. Are the Government and the Minister trying to promote that?

I absolutely do. As the proud father of five daughters, each of whom has been involved at some level in the cadets, I can certainly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I am impressed all the time by the number of young women engaged in the cadets and looking to a future in defence. Although of course this is not a recruiting exercise, the cadet force is increasingly female in its composition, and that has to be a positive thing.

I remain determined to do all I can to ensure that we continue to grow the number of cadets in our schools; as we recover from the pandemic, we must meet our 60,000 aspiration as soon as possible, so that schools such as Brakenhale School in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell can continue to flourish. The schools programme is, of course, complementary to the very successful community cadet forces, to which he referred. I pay tribute to the very active units in my constituency, and to the volunteers who sustain them. These community cadet forces are as popular as ever with our young people; the numbers mirror the growth in our school programme. The most recent figures show that we have more than 83,000 community cadets, which represents a 14% increase on the previous year.

Of course, none of this can happen without the selfless and invaluable contribution that adult volunteers make. The good news is that they can indeed receive some remuneration for their efforts, depending on the activities that they are engaged in. Historically, cadet units have had to put up with some fairly basic accommodation, and my hon. Friend touched on that. However, we continue to make considerable efforts to improve facilities for cadets, not least through the ongoing reserve estates optimisation programme.

School cadet units have been transforming the lives of our young people for more than 160 years. Once the preserve of independent schools, 65% of units are now in the state sector, which is a reversal of the previous situation, in which 75% of cadet units were in independent schools. Like the rest of our modern cadet forces, school cadet units embody the ethos of the armed forces, and are laser-focused on helping young people to develop and reach their full potential, in whatever walk of life they choose. Covid has slowed our ambitions somewhat, but thanks to our cadet force 2030 strategy, the Government have plans in place, as well as the commitment, to deliver their continued growth, ensuring that our cadet units, in schools and communities, will continue to transform the lives of more and more of our young people for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.