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BALD John

“Gents, straight in please,” says RSM Ginger Booth to “diamond” recruits in 169 troop in the recent television documentary series Royal Marines Commando School.

“Stand at ease, please,” says Lt Col Mike Geldard to the two candidates for the King’s Badge, “We’re all Royal Marines, just like you two.”

“Please,” indeed.  Until this point we had heard more of what my father used to call “the army adjective”, yelled in recruits’ faces to get an immediate response.

Most teachers understand that raising the voice makes people respond to tone rather than the content, and this switch from command to request, and the colonel’s cordial briefing before the assessment, show that the Marines understand it too.

It’s not so new in army training – a documentary of Parachute Regiment training in the eighties showed the same change in tone when recruits were suddenly placed on first reserve for the Falklands war. “I’ve not taught you to do that,” (fire one shot instead of two) was the nearest the trainers came to a rebuke.

Crack troops like the Marines and Paras – they enjoy a friendly game of rugby, with ambulances in attendance – are paid to think as well as fight, and their peak physical condition puts them in a position to do this.

The Royal Marines appear in a column about education because the producers, Twofour, are the same company that produced Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex. Two of the four “diamonds” candidates have degrees, and the overall CO, Col Dave – not “call me Dave” –  Kassapian has a degree in English literature. The company’s goal was to show the individuals involved rather than just the process of transition from civilian to Marine, and they combined this with a very clear demonstration of the process itself.

This is brilliant television, making the best of every insight multiple cameras can offer, with the full co-operation of all concerned – filming schedules were published to recruits, so they knew when they were on camera and when not, but it did not seem to make much difference. The determination of the two recruits in episode seven who pushed themselves to the very limit – one succeeded, one failed because of a broken leg – was astonishing, and I recommend this episode to anyone who didn’t catch it first time around.

What made this series compulsive viewing, and re-viewing, was its totally accurate portrayal of the full picture. The trainers, mostly corporals, had to ask themselves the question, “Would you go to war with this man beside you?”  Sgt Matt Howells adds that, while they are competitive, “There’s very little in-fighting…we want outward-fighting”.

The two diamond recruits who did not go to the final selection panel spent the night helping those who did with their revision. The essence, getting to the right standard, was never out of sight.  There was no question of certifying incompetence, or making the tests “more accessible.”

By contrast, this is where the two school series lost the plot. The focus on the misbehaviour of a few pupils wrecked Educating Essex and gave a poor impression of the work of schools. I visited the school in question at the invitation of the head shortly afterwards and, while I was treated to his party-piece of an immaculate fire-drill, I was fairly well convinced that what was going on bore no resemblance to the series.  This was a well-disciplined working environment, and poor behaviour was managed in a way that did not wreck other pupils’ learning. I did not see anyone walking on tables on their way out of the room, or unanswered questions from pupils.

Educating Yorkshire showed courage equal to that of the Marines in Mr Steer, and captured an astonishing piece of brilliance in Mr Burton’s adaptation of The King’s Speech to help a pupil with a speech difficulty, but also homed in on the worst behaviour, as if it were something teachers should be expected to deal with.

The follow-up episode featured an amazing turnaround from the pupil with the most serious behavioural difficulties, but also showed the head defending his decision to exclude a bullied pupil “for violence”, when in fact, like a poor football referee, he had ignored the initial abuse, laughing and joking with the bullies, and focused only on the inappropriate response. Mr Mitchell is a big man, and would doubtless resent the idea that he was a bit of a bully himself, but his “I can’t change my mind, and I won’t,” was pure authoritarianism.

The boss is right because he is the boss.  If he did or said something else, that would be right for the same reason. QED. The atmosphere in the Marines training team was much more open, if not necessarily democratic. “That is a fair and just vote,” was RSM Booth’s conclusion on his team’s King’s Badge selection process.

The producers get a third bite at the educational cherry in their series in Walthamstow. We can only hope that they come to understand the work of schools as clearly as they understood that of the Marines.

6 comments for: John Bald: What can teachers learn from the Royal Marines?

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