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Army basic skills crisis a ticking time bomb

Inspector calls recruits' low levels of literacy and numeracy 'disgraceful'. Shekhar Bhatia reports

Britain's skills crisis was laid firmly on the Government's doorstep this week as inspectors told of the "staggering" discovery of a bomb-disposal technician who was struggling to read.

While private-sector employers continue to be encouraged to take more interest in their staff's literacy and numeracy, adult learning chief inspector David Sherlock this week told of his despair at the poor skills of Iraq-based military personnel, uncovered in an investigation by his staff.

Speaking after the publication of his controversial report into armed forces training last week, Mr Sherlock said the Army should have dealt with the bomb-disposal technician's lack of basic skills before allowing him to train for the specialist job.

He said the Army's recruitment service, which is known for its slogan "Army jobs - not your basic training", is failing to screen recruits properly for basic skills needs.

Mr Sherlock's agency, the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI), was asked to look at army training in the wake of the deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks between 1995 and 2002.

Discussing the case of the bom-disposal technician, he said: "It was staggering to find somebody who was fully qualified, but still struggling to read instructions, and who felt insecure on that account.

"This chap was fully trained and doing the job. His reading skills were not good and he was seeking help, but the concern was that this difficulty was not diagnosed during training."

The soldier was interviewed by ALI while serving in Iraq, where he was a member of a team involved in making safe bombs found in the aftermath of the USBritish invasion and during the ensuing unrest.

The soldier's deficiencies came to light when he presented himself to an army education facility in Basra and announced he had problems with reading.

Mr Sherlock told FE Focus that, if he was forced to grade the Army's standard of training, he would give it a D or an E.

He conceded that many armed forces recruits have poor literacy and numeracy.

He said: "People in the Ministry of Defence will say that 30,000 people go through their recruiting a year and a very high proportion of them have left school with very low levels of literacy and numeracy.

"That is disgraceful. It also means the armed services are very substantial providers of literacy and numeracy training, which I don't think they should have to be. But the fact remains that they are, and we are suggesting that they must do it better. There is some good practice, but they could be even more effective.

"Induction sessions seldom diagnose problems with sufficient care to enable them to be addressed efficiently."

Mr Sherlock's inspectors found poor standards of instruction, a poor equal-opportunities record and poor leadership and management.

The ALI found that many army trainees, like civilian counterparts in apprenticeships, drop out before their training is complete.

Literacy and numeracy are among the most worrying areas, said Mr Sherlock.

He said commanding officers are often given short-term postings to training establishments, which means that little has been done to promote continuous improvement. Instead, officers inherit the policies, practices and materials of their predecessors with little incentive to do anything other than preserve the status quo.

He said that instructors should be scrutinised under a formal selection procedure rather than the current practice of being appointed on the recommendation of commanding officers.

Mr Sherlock added: "What we are saying is that recruitment and initial training are being done by people who are resting from the front line, without any particular checks on their aptitude or training for the task.

"That policy can produce some very high-quality people for the front line and is successful in that one dimension. However, it doesn't take into account high drop-out and injury rates and the passing on of negative aspects of military culture, such as harassment and bullying, without any check from generation to generation."

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