By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Shaun (front row) made lifelong friends
Ministers want to expand the Combined Cadets Force to more comprehensive schools, in a move backed by the Conservatives. Youth worker Shaun Bailey explains how 15 years as a Cadet kept him out of prison and made him who he is today.
When 12-year-old Shaun Bailey walked on to a west London council estate to join the Army Cadets - pretending he was 13 - he was by his own admission "gobby" and aggressive.
His mother was concerned he was falling into the wrong crowd and sent him off to 204 Cadet Company in White City, a 20-minute walk from the family home. He now believes her decision was the making of him.
"Cadets steered me away from crime and gave me an internal personal pride," says Bailey, now 36 and running a youth charity in the streets where he grew up.
"It taught me how to succeed, which is key. Living on your estate, success is beating people up or making money by hustling."
His motives on that first day were not aligned with his mother's - he just wanted to be "rock hard" like a Para and show off a "cool" uniform on the estate.
Two evenings a week plus one weekend session were spent on activities such as shooting, adventure training, map reading, drill training or sports like football, athletics, rugby and gymnastics. Two weekends a month were spent on camp.
"It was very 'Boys Own' - we went out and did stuff. Annual camp was the highlight of my life from the age of 13 to 25, it was two weeks in the summer but I would start saving my money three to four months before."
SHAUN'S KEY LESSONS
taking orders from adults
putting group above individual
taking responsibility for others
making lifelong friends
learning about war
Although the unit's 600-odd cadets were drawn from the local area, it was a bit of a "white boy" thing at the start, he says, but as time went by the recruits became more diverse.
"Joining Cadets was the point when I was starting to become different and my mates [on the estate] noticed it. I was always asking them to join but they said they couldn't stand having someone shouting at them.
"But you have to take orders, you have to be told stuff by adults and I carried that through to when I went home or when I went to school."
Once a youngster accepts discipline from an adult, then the rest of his life becomes easier, and the men giving orders to the Cadets instantly earned respect.
"When a big, hard man tells you to shut your mouth, you do it. But if a schoolteacher does that, the kid will jump up and talk about suing."
Cadets are taught that breaking a rule has consequences, says Bailey, and his habit of using his fists to resolve conflict earned him a lot of press-ups when he first joined.
Other punishments, for late timekeeping, dirty uniform or messing around, included the deprivation of rewards or blocked promotion.
COMBINED CADET FORCE
A voluntary youth organisation for 13 to 18-year-olds
It is not part of the Armed Forces
There are 253 units in state and private schools
Many more units are based in communities
Began in the 1850s when some schools formed units attached to Rifle Volunteer Battalions
Bailey says he became so dedicated to the rules and regulations that with a prize on offer for the cleanest room when on camp, he boot-polished his heater to make it less grubby-looking and slept on the floor because he had ironed his bedclothes.
"In the long-term it taught me to invest in myself. I wanted to win [the TV show] Superstars so I trained to do it. I wanted to be promoted so I learnt to map-read, even though at the time, it was boring and hard.
"On the streets, most pay-offs are immediate or you don't bother with them.
"A problem is getting young people to engage in something that won't pay off. But sometimes you have to just hang on in there."
Aged 17 he was tempted to join the Army but decided to focus his energy into helping wayward youngsters in his community. He continued in the Cadets for another 10 years as a sergeant instructor.
Tim Connolly, who was Bailey's captain when he joined, recalls a boy who needed direction. "I think he got out of the Cadets things he wasn't getting out of schooling. We saw him mature and he became a very able young man."
But not everyone believes the Army is a positive influence on young people. Teachers have opposed the Forces recruiting in schools because they fear the classroom being militarised.
Bailey disagrees and thinks its influence on young people is all positive.
The answer to youth crime?
His experience made him realise how futile war is, he says, because a trip to Arnhem aged 16, to meet veterans and see the graves, enabled him to see beyond the Hollywood version of the battlefield.
And far from fetishising guns, he says handling a rifle has generated a "loathing" in him for firearms.
Unfortunately for some of his early friends, violence was their undoing. A few got into trouble and were jailed and some even lost their lives.
Bailey recalls one particular night when if he hadn't been at Cadets he would have joined his friends in burgling a factory, a misadventure that led to them all being arrested.
"I sometimes think that the problems that led them down that alley, the skills I learnt in Cadets could have saved them.
"When I try to make sense of why I am who I am and why they are who they are, I can't escape the fact I was a Cadet. It was absolutely vital."
Below is a selection of your comments:
I do not believe that expansion of the CCF is the way forward. I was once a cadet with the Air Training Corps in Grays, Essex - not affiliated in any way with a school. There are many of these squadrons/units across the country and it is these that require the most support. The CCF can draw from the schools 'ranks' at the end of the day - a normal ATC, Army cadet or sea cadet unit needs to recruit from the streets which, apart from joining up, is the toughest task they face.
David Neve, Lincoln, England
I was in the cadets at school and I agree with a lot of the article - it gave me confidence; the realisation of the futility of war; how dangerous a rifle or pistol really is; and to take pride in what I do. But I also encountered NCOs (essentially older pupils) who abused their positions of authority. Now anyone who wants my respect must earn it. Just shouting at me to do something is not going to get a reaction, but telling me a valid reason why I must do what they say will. In the end, I too didn't join the Armed Forces for that very reason - that I couldn't accept orders blindly without being given a valid reason.
As a cadet services instructor of some years I know that what this young man says to be true, however, the value of what we do is gradually being eroded by the politically correct and mindless application of petty H&S rules all of which is reducing the quality and authenticity on the training we can provide. for instance there is a strong undercurrent in my service to prevent cadets shooting and it is now very difficult to arrange range time for them because 'guns are not politically correct' also we are now specifically barred from ordering press-ups as a punishment unless we are 'qualified' PTIs and we are not supposed to shout at them even though sometimes you must for safety reasons. On the subject of discipline, it is very noticeable that the cadets who are sent 'to get some discipline' and receive none at home do not do well as the can't understand why they are not allowed to freely interpret their orders so this young man must have had a parental base on which to build as do all the cadets
Peter, Worthing UK
Having been a former Cadet Warrant Officer in the RAF section of the CCF, my opinion of the CCF is more ambivalent than Shaun Bailey's. Although the discipline and focus demanded really can transform negative attitudes and keep kids out of trouble, there are major problems inherent in the system. One such problem, highlighted by teachers' recent complaints about the militarization of the classroom, is that the CCF becomes a subtle recruitment tool for the armed services, presenting only the positive aspects of a life in the military and ignoring more important ethical issues. I myself came very close to seeking an RAF commission to pay me through medical school, which would have been a 12 year commitment. This is a decision that I now realise would have been impossible to make at such a young age. Stricter emphasis must be placed on the seriousness of a career in the military (it is not a decision to be taken lightly at the age of 17, even though this is many people's experience); there should be more control over how the CCF interacts with the rest of the school community; and there should be at the very least some attention to the ethical consequences of using military force in combat.
Luke Martin, Oxford
I went to a military boarding school in Kent, and the morals, discipline and manners that it taught my peers and me were invaluable. We learned to respect authority the hard way, and we weren't pandered to in any way. The military tradition, including cadets, was an integral part of our education. Looking at my school friends now, there are none that I know of that have trodden a wayward path in life. I do think there was also a distinct advantage in that we were all boarders, and the staff had total control over our free time. Detention wasn't half an hour after school, it was an hour on a Saturday night when all your mates were doing their own thing! Cadets is a voluntary activity for most kids now, whereas for us there was no choice, and I think that a lot of teenagers would quit when the going got tough. Make it mandatory, and bring back National Service!
Whilst I appreciate the difference between joining the cadets and the regular army, does this move not fly in the face of recent decisions by schools to stop the army recruiting from within them? Surely the benefits to young men with a career in the regular army can be just as tangible as those provided by the cadets?
Simon Reynolds, Milton Keynes
I am an adult volunteer with the Air Cadets and a former air cadet myself and it's true that being a cadet makes a massive difference to the lives of many young people. I would like to stress that it isn't just for boys and it certainly isn't just for those who have behavioural problems - every youngster can benefit and often those who are quite shy and quiet find a way to express themselves and flourish once wearing a uniform and participating in such exciting activities. I would encourage all parents to take their sons and daughters along to their local cadet unit (not in schools but in your local community) and have a look - it's very cheap and very exciting - and don't tell the kids but it's hugely educational too!!
Paula, Stowmarket, Suffolk
I have been Youth leader for 43 years in the Boys' Brigade and currently in the Air Training Corps. The experience of Shaun Bailey is not unusual. The discipline in uniformed organisations, sets boundaries of behaviour, enables young people to earn respect, take on responsibility. It does not really matter which organisation, but all children should be encouraged to join one of them - it will be the making of them!
Alan Rashleigh, Poynton, Cheshire, UK
I was an Air Cadet for four yrs and loved every moment. I didn't join because I was a teenager going off the rails, I joined because I was thinking of joining the RAF and wanted some direction to my life. I loved how smart everyone looked in their blue/grey uniforms and the air of discipline in the Sqdrn building. Joining the ATC opened up so many opportunities any other kid on the street wouldn't have. I learned to play an instrument in the band, I loved drill and competed at a regional level, I competed in the annual sports days, I took rifle practice, had radio training and piloted a light aircraft and that was just for starters! I even gained the bronze and silver Duke of Edinburgh Awards. If I could turn back time, I would do it all again and more - I was an extremely proud cadet, the sense of pride when we all did something or won something as a team - a squadron was immense.
Vicky Prince, Oldham
I have been in the Air Training Corps for just over three years now and plan to stay as long as I can in the Corps. And it has kept me on the right path through life - this is a great idea, although I think that it would be much better for there to be a greater publicity for the Air Training Corps to get people to join that organisation - it gives you great skills for life and it is what employers love. I don't recall the CCF doing many helpful things which encompass all of the cadet forces, however, I know that the ATC has a huge list of activities available - from fieldcraft to shooting, from flying to parachuting - there's something for everyone.
Luke Carter, Coventry
I was in the Army section of Combined Cadets at school and I had an immense amount of fun for four years. A lot of people think it is a recruitment tool for the armed services but I never once encountered a situation where I felt I was being press-ganged into the Army. Although national service is against many people's taste, why not have that alongside government sponsored community projects as an alternative - so long as everybody does something, everybody wins.
James Battersby, West Molesey, Surrey, UK
I joined the cadets at 13 and ended up in the TA as an officer. I am now 32. I think that we need some military discipline back in society. Being taught you are not the biggest and hardest. We need to show those carrying guns or knives on the streets that without them they are not 'big men'. I do not understand teachers saying they don't want this when it might just stop attacks on them and breed some respect.
Andy, Dubai, UAE
At the age of 11, I joined the Cadets - but it was St John Ambulance Cadets in my case. In a similar way to the Combined Cadet Force, St John Ambulance allowed me to develop a sense of pride and self-discipline. Trips to camp taught me that in society, everyone needs to play their part, because on camp, everyone helped with the cleaning, washing and tidying. If you didn't help, you lost the respect of your peers. Being a Cadet with St John Ambulance has been the biggest factor in getting my job today, where I work for St John Ambulance recruiting volunteer youth leaders to ensure our Cadet groups can continue to run.
Rob, Birmingham, UK