Corporals in the classroom at new ‘free’ school

The founders of a new school, staffed entirely by ex-servicemen and women, are hoping to revolutionise education in Britain. Is military discipline the key to keeping teenagers in line?

The phrase ‘military school’ is rarely heard in modern education. Shooting ranges and freezing showers were thrown out of most classrooms long ago. Today, the merciless discipline and unbending structure associated with the Army has been replaced with a more open, friendly type of teaching.

Now, though, the services are going back to school. In Oldham, England, a small group of educational trailblazers are campaigning to create a school staffed entirely by ex-servicemen and women. They hope the military ethos of the Phoenix School, which could open by September 2013, will change education forever.

Founded by an Army captain, the Phoenix Free School plans instill pupils with the ‘core values of the army’. Courage, authority and loyalty will be enforced by a strict code of discipline. With experience in the word’s most dangerous war zones, teachers will have good reason to be respected by students.

They will expect the sharpest standards of behaviour in return. Competition will be encouraged and misbehaviour will not be tolerated. If anyone oversteps the mark, other students will choose a punishment ‘much harsher than anything a teacher could possibly impose’.

The proposal, which could become a reality by 2013, comes at a crucial time. After riots in August, many, such as Tottenham MP David Lammy, say lack of discipline at home and at school is causing a serious breakdown in society’s rules.

Bringing in the army to solve the problem is not totally new. In America, Troops to Teachers has been retraining ex-servicemen and women as teachers for 18 years. Now, 6,000 members of the US forces have made the move to schools.

In some of the most violent and deprived neighborhoods of America’s cities they encourage teamwork and resilience as well as obedience and discipline. For the young people they teach, supporters say, they become respected role models, who inspire young people to be the best they can be.

Stick or carrot?

For the military-minded, harsh discipline is exactly what today’s classrooms need. To do well, they say, teenagers need strict rules and clear goals. If they fail to meet them, there must be real consequences. Without structure and boundaries, young people have no motivation to succeed – and the consequences of that can be disastrous.

That kind of approach, say others, is outdated and destructive. There are better ways to get people excited about learning than terrifying them into submission. Teenagers need understanding and guidance. They should be able to be creative, make mistakes, and have fun. A return to authoritarian lessons and rigid standards take us back to the bad old days of education.

You Decide

  1. Is better discipline what is needed in education?
  2. Are people likely to make good decisions if they are allowed to do as they please?


  1. The Phoenix Free School is being proposed under Education Secretary Michael Gove’s free schools agenda. Research how free schools are going to work, and some proposals for schools that have been put forward. Create a fact sheet on the scheme.
  2. Come up with your own proposal for a free school. What new ideas will you bring in to address the problems that might exist in schools? How will these ideas work on a practical level?

Some People Say...

“Young people today have no respect for authority.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So is this going to affect schools all over the UK?
Probably not. But Phoenix School is one of a growing number of ‘free schools’, which are financed by the government but don’t have to teach the national curriculum. Such schools often use more innovative and unusual methods of teaching. As more are started, teens could experience an increasing number of different educational styles.
Could that mean lessons get stricter?
In the wake of the riots, politicians are falling over themselves to suggest ways of improving discipline in education. Many advocate harsher punishments, and a move away from the more relaxed learning styles that some schools have adopted. And one scheme, called Troops to Teachers after the US programme,incentivises ex-soldiers to retrain as teachers in schools.

Word Watch

Oldham is a large town in greater Manchester, in the North of England. In 2001, Oldham became notorious for extensive rioting, fuelled by racial tensions between the area’s white and Asian communities.
This is a Greek word, originally coined to mean moral character. In that form, it was an important term for the philosopher Aristotle; now, it can refer more broadly to a culture or set of values that define a group, an era or a community.
A regime that imposes strict rules and discipline, and is centred specifically around a particular figure of authority.
This word comes from the Latin incentivus, which means ‘setting the tune’, or even ‘striking up’, like an orchestra. It means motivating people to act in certain ways, or make certain decisions. It was first used in America in the 1940s when people were being encouraged to work harder as part of the war effort.


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