The last Welsh Government rightly won plaudits for its work on children’s rights, most notably with the smacking ban, but also for embedding rights and ethics into the new curriculum. However, in one area progress has been conspicuously lacking — that of recruitment visits by the military to schools in Wales.
The issue is one steeped in controversy and on which opposing sides cannot even agree terms. The military argue that they carry out no DIRECT recruitment in schools, whilst peace organisations point to the huge number of repeat visits (particularly in poorer areas) for careers purposes which serve as a fig-leaf either for recruiting pupils to the armed forces indirectly, or for recruiting young people to pro-military attitudes, too often without hearing countervailing voices and arguments.
The issue was the focus of a recent report (Welsh language version here), written jointly by Cymdeithas y Cymod, ForcesWatch and the Peace Pledge Union. It examines the misleading and inaccurate portrayals of military life associated with advertising campaigns for the military, which are frequently targeted at the UK’s poorest towns and cities (particularly in Wales). It also highlights research setting out the worse health / mental health outcomes for child recruits to the military.
But the more fundamental issue it identified as a challenge for the next Welsh Government is that the UK is the only country in Europe that recruits 16-year-olds to its armed forces. Not only do over 70% of people in Wales disagree with that principle, it actually runs contrary to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child who have previously noted with concern the relationship between armed forces activities in schools and recruitment. If the Welsh Government is fully committed to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it must not only call for the UK Government to increase the age of recruitment, but must also take action that is within its power to limit unregulated access to young people in schools for recruitment activities.
None of this is news to the Welsh Government. These issues were highlighted by the Petitions Committee of the (then) National Assembly back in 2015, and the Welsh Government response accepted all of its recommendations. Yet as our report shows, little tangible progress has been made against those commitments, and all the while military recruitment visits to Welsh schools have continued undiminished. To redress the balance, the next Welsh Government should set up a formal review into military recruitment activities in Welsh schools. It should also issue guidance to headteachers and careers teachers so that when the armed forces are invited into school, more is done to take account of their unique nature as a career and the need to encourage an open and honest exchange of views with learners about their role.
There is also a significant role here for both the Children’s Commissioner and the Future Generations Commissioner, who ought to consider military recruitment activities in Welsh schools as an issue relating to children’s rights and wellbeing.
Following May’s elections, there is a unique opportunity for the next Welsh Government and its Commissioners to embrace these challenges and draw a line in the sand about Wales’ status as a peace-loving nation, and one which will not uncritically allow its children to be the target of military recruitment.
Ed Bridges lives in Cardiff and is a Council Member of the Peace Pledge Union.