James Sunderland backs the expansion of cadet programme in state schools

James Sunderland leads a debate on the Cadet Expansion Programme expanding the Combined Cadet Force into more and more state schools. He recalls his personal experiences and highlights the benefits of CCF, and other cadet and youth movements, not just to young people, but also the school and the local community.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

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.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

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?

James Sunderland 

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.