The arms company BAE Systems, along with the Royal Air Force, has run a “science roadshow” for pupils at a Christian secondary school in central London. The school is a few minutes’ walk from where I live.
The school, St Marylebone Church of England School, aims to “nurture respect for religious, moral and spiritual values” and to help pupils to “understand the interdependence of individuals, groups and nations”.
BAE Systems is a multinational arms firm, selling weapons to oppressive and aggressive regimes around the globe.
I heard about the event, which happened on 5th March, when I was contacted by the local paper, the West End Extra. It has now run a story about my criticism and the headteacher’s response. I have also written to the headteacher, Kat Pugh, explaining my concerns and apologising for not having written before my criticisms appeared in print.
I emphasised to her that I am not criticising the school as a whole. I am pleased to hear that the school has maked Fairtrade Fortnight and run an e-safety event.
I did not write as a a parent or a schoolteacher (although I teach in adult education). My comments are simply those of a local resident with a good knowledge of the arms industry in general and BAE in particular. There are two reasons why I strongly object to BAE’s role in this event.
Firstly, there is the issue of BAE’s influence on young people and its portrayal of science.
In her comments to the West End Extra, Kat Pugh emphasised that the event is not about recruitment for BAE or the RAF. I appreciate that it is not a direct recruitment event.
Nonetheless, I doubt that either BAE or the RAF engage in this sort of activity purely as a matter of charity. BAE have an interest in more people choosing careers in science, technology and engineering, as they employ people to do this sort of work. This employment is helped by the UK government, which effectively subsidises the arms industry to the tune of £700 million per year (according to the academic researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).
The headteacher suggests that the name of the company that runs the event is irrelevant because the children will not remember it. This seems rather disingenuous. The way the event is run will inevitably affect the way that science is portrayed, however subtly.
Secondly, any invitation to BAE helps to confer an image of social and moral legitimacy on the company and its activities.
This is why the Church of England no longer invests in BAE (or any company making more than ten percent of its turnover from arms sales). It is why nearly all charities now refuse to invest in BAE and and why institutions such as the National Gallery have recently ended sponsorship deals with arms firms.
In Kat Pugh’s comments to the West End Extra, she refers to the “defence industry”. BAE’s work is not about defence. Its customers include regimes that use weapons in the most aggressive manner against innocent civilians. Saudi Arabia is one of BAE’s “home markets”. I am sure the headteacher does not need me to tell her about the reality of the Saudi regime, its suppression of dissent or its use of weapons against peaceful critics of its royal family.
In 2011, peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain were attacked by their own government with the help of armoured vehicles made by BAE Systems.
If BAE’s representatives were in the school to debate the ethics of the arms industry with their critics, I would be glad that such a discussion was taking place. However, by allowing BAE to run a roadshow at which the company’s values are not questioned or debated, the school implies that it endorses, or at least tolerates, the activities of BAE and their impact on the world.
Having written to the school’s headteacher, I will also be writing to the Church of England to ask about any national policies concerning their schools’ relationships with arms companies.
Ironically, the BAE event at St Marylebone School took place on Ash Wednesday, 5th March. Ash Wednesday is a day associated with repentance, accepting God’s forgiveness and a change of hearts and minds. We all need to repent of our country’s role in the evil of the international arms trade.