Army officer tells Holyrood ‘our visits do not target schools in deprived areas’

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Senior members of the armed forces have told MSPs they do not recruit from schools or target schools in deprived areas for visits.

After being questioned on claims that one school in Scotland was visited 31 times between 2010 and 2012, a senior Army member said the school visit approach had “matured” since 2014.

Officers from the Army, RAF and Navy gave evidence at Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee after a petition was lodged by Quakers in Scotland and Forces Watch raising concerns that pupils from poorer areas were targeted in force visits.

The officers did not appear on the live broadcast of the meeting at the request of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) due to “safety” concerns.

Brigadier Paul Buttery, MoD head of training, education, skills, recruiting and resettlement, said the forces only visit schools when invited by the head teacher and no student makes a commitment to sign up during a visit.

The committee heard the visits cover careers fairs, personal development training, interviews and workshops and lessons on science, technology, engineering and maths activities such as designing ration packs.

Pupils aged between 14 and 16 can be given a brochure on forces activity and those aged between 16 and 18 can register interest but then must attend a careers office to apply.

The Brigadier said there were just over 1,000 school visits in Scotland last year, with the Army going to 70 schools three or more times, the Navy to 14 and the RAF to 12.

A total of 98 schools had visits from two services while 22 were attended by all three.

SNP MSP Rona Mackay said concerns had been raised about the “potential targeting of schools in areas of high economic deprivation”.

She said figures from 2010 to 2012 showed all army visits were made to state schools, with one school visited an “extraordinary” 31 times.

Brigadier Buttery said there is “no way that an armed forces team would be entertained turning up to the school that many times if it hadn’t been by invitation”.

He said his figures were more recent and the approach to engagement activities with schools has “matured and is quite different now, from about 2014”.

He added: “I know now there is no targeting of schools, based on gender, on social background or on the relative level of deprivation in any surrounding area.”

Ms Mackay replied: “But there was previously?”

Brigadier Buttery said: “I’m afraid I can’t comment on whether there was or not, I genuinely don’t know.

“It might be anecdotal but I would be surprised if there was a deliberate policy to do that. Certainly the current policy isn’t that and hasn’t been since about 2014.”

Conservative MSP Michelle Ballantyne, a former RAF volunteer reserve training branch officer, said she did not “see any point” in continuing with the petition as in her experience forces engagement with schools is “entirely professional”.

The committee agreed to further examine the petition following a response from the petitioners.