Rich or poor, white or Asian – Oldham’s new ‘military’ school will go one small step to instilling respect back into the town’s teenagers, according to its co-founder.
Last month, Phoenix Free School was one of 102 free schools granted approval by the Department for Education to open in 2014.
Much of the teaching staff will be made up of former members of the Armed Forces – led by Captain Affan Burki who will act as headteacher.
And though there is a ‘healthy scepticism’ of the British Army, co-founder Tom Burkard insists parents from all backgrounds are embracing the idea.
“There is a very strong perception that our schools have lost a sense of authority which is necessary for the functioning of any kind of social unit,” he told MM.
“And this is the reason why we have found outside the school gates that Asian parents have been just as eager to talk to us, if not more so, than English parents.
“They are concerned their children are going to schools where they are losing their respect for elders, their religion and just about everything, even themselves.
“And if there’s one thing which is going to be crucial to our success, it is that we are building a school which will be based on that mutual respect and consent – not coercion.”
The school came under the spotlight in the wake of the Woolwich tragedy last month after The Telegraph blogger, Toby Young, suggested it could become a template for eradicating Muslim extremists.
“It was controversial and he said some things which were very close to the edge,” added Mr Burkard. “I certainly think it’s a mistake to tie the Woolwich issue too closely to the school.
“But as always there was that little grain of truth in it which made people think. We have a lot of Muslim and white kids growing up who have no belief that they can ever become a productive member of society.
“That’s what creates alienation, the fact they don’t believe they matter. This is what we really have to think about – how do we get kids to the point where they can believe they can make a positive contribution?”
As a free school, Phoenix will not be under the control of Oldham Council, but able to dictate its own affairs with a greater degree of autonomy.
At the heart of the school will be ‘military virtues’ – courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment – and Mr Burkard believes abiding by such an ethos will help open doors for disadvantaged youth.
“The collapse of the economy has severely impacted the area, and the question one has to ask ‘is why isn’t Oldham taking part in the regeneration taking place in Greater Manchester right now,’” he said.
“To a large extent I think it’s to do with the fact that a lot of children growing up there don’t see a future.
“Oldham has one of the highest rates of young people not in education, employment or training in the UK and we feel a very important part of that is the education system isn’t quite going their way.
“There are a lot of very good schools in Oldham, but by the same token there are others that are clearly not doing the job.”
However, Tony Harrison, vice-president of Oldham’s National Union of Teachers branch, is sceptical that Phoenix will make its intended impact.
Not only does the school claim it will fix problems in Oldham which are not there, insists Mr Harrison, but it may end up harming pupils due to the founders’ view on how best to educate.
“We are disappointed about all free schools opening,” Mr Harrison explained. “We do not think they are helpful at all and they prevent local authorities being able to plan ahead.
“In our experience with parents in Oldham, they have not been unhappy with the level of discipline in schools.
“And in particular with Phoenix Free School, it is a concern of ours that not all of the ex-military staff will be qualified teachers, though they have made an improvement from their initial application 12 months ago in which they thought accepted teaching methods were liberal nonsense.
“But our criticism is not because they are ex-military. We want people to be teachers from all walks of life.
“What we are also concerned about is they seem to believe there is no such thing as special education needs, and that general attitude will not help children who need it the most.”
Mr Burkard does not expect similar schools to sweep the nation, admitting the model is limited due to the lack of qualified personnel with army experience.
But Oldham parents should not expect their sons and daughters to negotiate obstacle courses and early morning drills before class.
“You will not be able to see anything that reminds you of the military here, other than the fact we have a teaching staff which will be made up of former serving members,” said Mr Burkard.
“There is no doubt whatsoever, that if you were to suggest to Asian parents or anyone else, that their children were going to be put in British Army uniform and be marching around the parade square, they would be very rightly upset.”
However, Anti Academies Alliance secretary Alasdair Smith sees very few benefits in the experience military personnel can bring to a classroom.
“A lot of has been made about the success of turning troops into teachers in the US, but the fact remains their incarceration rate is the highest in the world,” said Mr Smith.
“Schools do not need military values to bring discipline, particularly when you consider the examples the British Army has set by bombing innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I would be very keen to see young Asian youth receive the best education, but free schools divert both attention and funds from those that remain under local education authorities.
“The school may help a very small minority but what about the rest of the kids?”
Picture courtesy of The US Army, via Flickr, with thanks.