Major Andrew Plewes RM 1 became Seaford College’s new Contingent Commander during the winter term. We spoke with him about his distinguished military career, the secrets of good leadership and his plans for the future.
Tell us about your background.
I went to Bromsgrove School in the Midlands where I joined the cadet force there in my last year. I was interested in the Navy at that point and thought the experience of being a cadet would be useful.
I studied Anatomy and Human Biology at Liverpool University, joined the Royal Navy unit, learnt navigation and seamanship, and had a great time. As I considered my future more closely, I decided I wanted to be a Marine, for the challenge, the variety and the travel.
So after uni I applied to join the Corps, went through the selection process, completed my training and went on to have a very varied and interesting career. I looked for challenges, variety and experience rather than aiming for promotion, which led to me doing a lot of diverse jobs. After 12-15 years, I began to look at what my next move would be. I’d married a teacher and was aiming towards getting the right qualifications to go into teaching, so I did my PGCE part-time while I was running a training course teaching Marines how to be Corporals. To complete it I had to be granted an extension of studies due to being deployed to Iraq.
More recently, two years at Army HQ behind a desk convinced me that it was time to leave. I had to put in a year’s notice, then start looking for a job and here I am.
What do you miss most, and least, about the Royal Marines?
I most miss the huge amount of camaraderie. Also I miss the fact that when we were based in the UK there was a lot of time built in for sports and fitness training. I ran the Royal Marines’ cycling team for five years. I miss those opportunities.
I least miss the uncertainty every year or so when you need to go into bat with the ‘(dis)appointer’ to work out what your next move would be. I was lucky that throughout my whole time in the Marines I got relatively interesting jobs, but the longer you stay in, the greater the chance of not getting posted where you want to be. It also became more disturbing to family life.
How have you found the experience of adjusting to life at the school?
It’s been like going back to school! Adapting to a new and different environment is in many ways similar to starting a new job in the Corps – it’s the same process of learning from other people and working very hard. People who’ve been in the armed forces tend to be able to adapt to what is required of them. It’s been an interesting experience so far.
What has your role at Seaford involved thus far, with regards to both the CCF and academic teaching?
So far I’ve taught a fair amount of Science to Wilberforce and Biology up to Year 11, which has been good. I’ve enjoyed getting back into biology. The CCF side has been quite challenging but rewarding. It’s been all about building a team to deliver an exciting and challenging programme for the cadets here. We’re also trying to squeeze things into the diary that weren’t planned at the beginning of the year. But it’s nice to have an area of the school that I can really influence.
What do you think are the secrets of successful leadership?
There are lots of different styles of leadership. The most important thing I learnt about leadership is to know what you’re good at. You can apply principles that you’ve seen and heard elsewhere, but you must be true to yourself. A key point is an ability to communicate. It isn’t as much about standing out and delivering moving speeches and shouting, ‘Follow me!’ It’s more about motivating a team and playing to other people’s strengths and weaknesses.
How do you think the CCF benefits pupils?
I think the CCF is a brilliant system. It offers a huge range of opportunities to give cadets experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise get, fully funded. It gives pupils leadership opportunities, the chance to challenge themselves, do adventurous activities outside the classroom to gain in confidence and broaden their horizons.
What do you have planned for the future of the CCF at Seaford?
I want to expand the programme and forge closer links with the Outdoor Education department. The two are complimentary, there’s a lot of crossover. CCF is compulsory in Year 10 and we’re trying to make the Year 10 programme as varied and interesting as possible, with additional activities ranging from offshore sailing to mountaineering.
Each pupil chooses which of the three Sections to join – Royal Navy, Army and RAF – and the vast majority of cadets get their first choice. There are some collective activities such as DofE that all cadets do, and some that only your Section will do. Then pupils have the option of: staying on, moving Section, or leaving. Later on is when all the leadership opportunities come about. There are a huge variety of leadership courses, events and activities on offer.
The way the CCF is designed to run is that we as cadet force adult volunteers provide a safe framework under which cadets help to provide their own training. So a lot of the Year 10 training is delivered by Year11-13 students.
Is being a Marine as tough as everyone says?
It can be. It can also be incredibly rewarding. I feel a huge amount of pride about having done it. The training itself is one of the toughest basic military training courses in the world, but with the desire to finish it – the right frame of mind is incredibly important – it is perfectly achievable. So it is as much about the right mental attitude as the physical side.
You really have to want to succeed. In training everyone goes through a bad patch. Most people who drop out do so of their own free will. If you’re determined enough, you will get through. It’s about how you deal with the challenging times. There are very few people who the training instructors will throw off the course. You’re given every opportunity to pass. The right will to succeed will get the majority of people through.
As a career, it’s an example of one extreme to another. I’ve been the Officer Commanding the Royal Marines Biathlon Team, spending six months travelling around Europe cross-country skiing and shooting and six months planning deployments and training in the UK. At the other extreme, I’ve been a Company Commander leading 100 men on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
How was the experience of seeing a Remembrance service from a public viewpoint, rather than a military perspective?
I hadn’t done an address like that before. It wasn’t something I had thought about or envisaged doing, but it was an honour and a good way of remembering some of my own personal challenges and losses. It means an awful lot that we as a school and a society still remember – and rightly so. It wasn’t just the military but the whole of society in both world wars, the sacrifices that so many people made in order to provide a better world for future generations.
Do the grounds here at Seaford provide an ideal training environment for the CCF?
We’re in an absolutely unique and very enviable position with regards to what we have on our doorstep in terms of the school grounds and the military training grounds nearby, such as Longmoor and Thorney Island.
In terms of outdoor education, the fact we’re able to do the bronze DofE award here in the school grounds is extraordinary. The CCF now helps deliver the Bronze DofE in Year 10 – it made sense to pool resources and run it together with the Outdoor Education team.
We also want to do more adventurous activities. For example, we’ll be taking 17 cadets to North Wales soon for mountain walking, canoeing, climbing and mountain biking.
How do school meals compare to military meals?
The food here at Seaford is very good. The food in the military can be pretty good but it can also be pretty dire when on deployment. That said our ration packs are a lot better than they used to be.
What do you do to relax?
I cycle. There’s nothing more relaxing than a 50-60 mile ride over the Downs at the weekend.
What advice do you have for someone who’s thinking of going into the armed forces?
The CCF is the ideal opportunity to find out more about it, whether that’s as a reserve or a regular. Whatever Service you want to go in, the CCF is a brilliant opportunity to learn about them. It can help you to get into the armed forces or to rule them out as an option – either way, it’s a fun thing to do. There are all sorts of visits and connections we can arrange that can inform pupils’ future career. And the CCF always looks good on your CV. The leadership experience is excellent.
What are your plans for future?
There will be two main trips a year. One will be non-uniform adventure training over Easter and the other will be a military-run summer training camp, where the cadets will learn military field skills. The latter will be at Crowborough this year and we’re looking to carry on holding it there – it’s relatively local and it’s a well-run camp.
We want to have one field day per Section per term, to broaden the cadets’ experience, see military establishments, see more of the military outside of the school. The RAF Section already has flying experience opportunities, going out to a local airfield and looking at light aircraft. We’re looking to take the Navy Section sailing in Portsmouth and to have fieldcraft training weekends for the Army Section.
It’s an exciting time for the CCF because it’s just beginning to move forwards with new facilities. We’re building a new HQ office and a new stores complex, and a new outdoor centre – of which the CCF will be one of the key users.
Have you done the same training course that houseparent Matthew Pitteway completed last year to raise money for charity?
The Endurance Course is a series of tunnels, muddy pools and obstacles on Woodbury Common, just outside the Commando Training Centre. They stage challenge events where civilians can put themselves through the course. I think this is what Matt did. It’s something that we will look to do again. I used to do it regularly during training – except we had get ourselves to the common with 30lb of kit and our rifles. We’d then complete the course, run back to camp, prepare our rifles for firing having taken them through those water-filled tunnels, and then have to achieve at least 70% in a shooting test.