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Potential on parade

Captain Lee Jones went from being barely literate to possessing three university degrees, all gained as a serving soldier. Tom Bennett met him to find out just what the Army's educational programme is doing so right

Captain Lee Jones went from being barely literate to possessing three university degrees, all gained as a serving soldier. Tom Bennett met him to find out just what the Army's educational programme is doing so right

Imagine you are 21 years old and almost illiterate. And let us say you want to improve your lot. How would you go about doing it? The solution that Captain Lee Jones of the British Army decided upon was to read Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, using a dictionary.

"I chose it because it only cost a pound and it was the nearest book to hand when I had an epiphany in WHSmith. I decided I no longer wanted to be referred to as `daft Taff' and would teach myself to read."

I approach Jellalabad Barracks in Tidworth, Hampshire, listening to the soundtrack of Zulu (coincidentally, honest). To the civilian, soldiering can seem a cinematic profession, a rough entanglement of guts, glory and the grotesque; we often think more about the physicality of assault courses and endurance training than brain gym.

And so it is unsurprising that we forget - or choose to ignore - just how big a part education plays in the British Army. The thought of Flashman as educator rather than eliminator is hard to imagine.

Yet the Army is the largest apprenticeship provider in the whole of the UK, with more than 8,000 completed each year. It gives literacy and numeracy support to soldiers who need it. Phase 1 training (basic training for all infantry aged 17 or over) - that's schooling. So, too, is Phase 2 and 3 training (specialist training in artillery or transport, for example), and officer training at Sandhurst. And, incredibly, soldiers who stay on in the forces are given learning credits that can be redeemed against civilian qualifications, all the way up to PhD level, in anything from fine art or philosophy to molecular physics.

The skills race

Why so studious? Why bother? Who needs a soldier with a master's degree in intersectional feminism? The answer is surprisingly utilitarian: with its numbers dwindling each year (it is currently being cut from 102,000 to 82,000), the Army has to make sure that the remaining personnel are as effective as possible. That means as educated as possible. Beating the opposition in a skills race is as important as any arms race.

That, and the retention dividend from supporting career soldiers with their intellectual ambitions, leads to the extraordinary training package on offer. As long as you are OK with the prospect of potentially being shot at, it's probably worth it.

Jones left school with empty pockets and came from a home they used to call broken. "Most of my friends went to the bad," he says. "Drugs and crime. It would have been easy for me to do the same."

Instead, he resisted the gravity of economic determinism and became a trainee carpenter. He failed to get qualified because he couldn't cope with the college side. He worked anyway, unqualified, and that would have been that, normally. The world is an unforgiving place for people with no qualifications, almost illiterate, with no cultural, familial or financial capital to prop you up.

But then, at 20, Jones thought: "What about the Army?"

He chose the Parachute Regiment: B Company, 1st Battalion.

Self-interest and duty

Stepping onto base is like walking into another dimension. Armed guards and checkpoints are a good sign you are not in the suburbs any more. It is still Britain, but one where everyone runs on rails of tradition, codes of honour, discipline, history and loyalty; a place of secret languages and jargon, of borders and certainties. It's like Teach First with guns.

I've come to see the teaching. If the Army is taking kids who have failed at school and getting them not just learning but excelling in education, I want to see how.

My liaison for the day is Taff, aka Welshman Captain Lee Jones. I also meet a Scot called Jock and a posh man called Rupert - what are the odds?

Jones is kind, enthusiastic and humble, and the fact that he keeps his dog in the staffroom only confirms that here is a righteous man. I feel suitably fraudulent whenever we walk past a soldier and they salute with precision, and I wonder if this is what it's like to work in a KIPP school.

The first lesson I observe is a group of terrifyingly young officers learning about soft versus hard power on the junior officer leadership programme, part of the development towards becoming a captain. It is the most fascinating citizenship lesson I think I've ever seen. The captain is fluent in his subject; the students are utterly civilised and focused; and the lesson dips in and out of direct instruction, with paired and group work to leaven the lecture.

Behaviour is not remotely a concern. Why would it be? Career progression in the army is inextricably linked to incremental qualifications, like a medical career. Self-interest and duty are folded over each other as intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Mindset, I'll add, is not an issue here. Wasabi is less keen than these guys.

Jones spent nine years wearing the maroon beret, flinging himself out of planes for the Queen in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Macedonia, Iraq, Germany, Brunei, the US, Poland, Cyprus and.I'll stop there but it carries on (44 countries in total). All the while, he was crawling through Hardy's paean to nemesis, word by excruciating word. Rarely has "in at the deep end" been so aptly applied. I'm only surprised he didn't teach himself to parachute by jumping off skyscrapers inside a locked safe.

"I wanted to make a success of myself," Jones says. "My main motivation was that I hated living with my stepfather and mother and never wanted to return home. The Army offered me an escape from that and I realised that if I was going to succeed then I would need to develop in certain areas.

"Most people were very supportive of my efforts, especially anyone in authority. However, some of my friends ridiculed me, especially when I started to write poetry - it doesn't really fit with the macho paras' image."

Jones transferred out of the paras to the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, becoming an exercise therapist. In 2007, he passed his City amp; Guilds literacy and numeracy assessment. The experience was a far cry from his time at school.

"I stopped attending school from the age of 12, really - I rarely attended classes. When I did attend I was very disruptive, throwing scissors at teachers, swearing and generally misbehaving. Sometimes I had taken drugs. Most of the teachers refused to have me in their class.

"But the woodwork teacher, Mr Morgan, allowed me to join his classes when the other teachers refused, and I spent most of my time in his classroom when I was at school. He knew how to get the best out of me and understood me. Woodwork was the only lesson I enjoyed and the reason I tried to become a carpenter.

"The Army was completely different from school and a much better environment for me to learn in. I felt a belonging almost immediately and the job gave me a sense of independence that I hadn't experienced previously. I never had a problem following orders and respected everyone in my chain of command."

I move to the next classroom. The trainee learning development officer (LDO or "teacher") is running - wait for it - a Who Wants to be a Millionaire? game (from TES resources, I might add) using an interactive whiteboard. Her students are trainees on the development course for potential officers, which aims to prepare soldiers for the selection board. The questions are about GCHQ and Nato.

The LDO is superb. Speaking as a crusty old watcher of lessons, I can tell straight away that she must be a top-notch teacher off base, too. I later discover that before joining the corps she used to teach in private schools.

In a day of surprises, there are more to come. I find out that on one of the courses - which prepares participants for Sandhurst - time is set aside for visits to cultural events. You heard me. Last year they went on a trip to the Tate Modern. Why on earth?

I'm told that for the soldiers progressing to officer rank who come from backgrounds light on what is often called cultural capital, gaining an insight into the secret gardens of middle-class shibboleths is at least a start to becoming acclimatised into the social landscape. It's a surreal revelation, but I can see the worth of it; like Pygmalion, with bullets and bugles. And doesn't it please you on several levels that the Army takes trainees to art galleries? Chuck in a BA in Saxon history and, if we're ever invaded by charity PRs and baristas, we're home and dry.

Jones went on to complete a warrant officer's course and a diploma in management. And you'd think that might be that. But no: a career soldier for two decades, he has somehow managed to accrue a degree in history, a PGCE, a master's degree in international relations, a master's degree in education, a diploma in classical studies, an Open University certificate in humanities, a certificate in sports science, a clip full of NVQs.I'll stop there but, as with the countries Jones has visited, the list goes on.

Assessment by outcome

How is the training assessed? No Ofsted here, at least not after Phase 1 training. Evidence of "impact" is currently God in mainstream education, so how does the Army know that what it's doing even works?

Answer: by outcome. For example, trainee officers hoping to be accepted to Sandhurst join a course grooming them for the selection process; they are then judged through a portfolio of verbal and practical activities on whether or not they have the right stuff to join the officer training centre.

It's extraordinary when you think about it: imagine if all schools were judged not on GCSEs or A-levels, but where their alumni went to university or the jobs they ended up in.

On the one hand there is a reassuring level of trust in the training. The top brass are telling the LDOs: "We believe that what you are doing is right; we do not need to assess your input directly, or as it happens." And I think many teachers would agree: you cannot gauge the effectiveness of a teacher from a snapshot of work in progress.

On the other hand, you'd better believe that one day a civil servant with a ledger will wake up to this enormous act of faith and cry: "Where is my data?" And that will be that. And in 20 years we will be a satellite oil platform for the reformed Soviet Union and the Queen will be speaking Swedish.

What kind of alchemy propels a man like Jones? I use the word alchemy carefully, with its connotations of applied magic; this is the inscrutable sorcery of character, which is currently sitting at No 1 in the edu-charts as this year's must-have square on your bingo card.

The sorting hat of life is capricious. When you get dealt a bum hand, who could blame you for playing a safe pair of twos?

The miracle is that somehow people can turn that hand into a flush. Every teacher has seen children who have succeeded despite adversity that would bury the boldest man and woman of us.

Much of what is written about character education is wishful thinking and motivational poster-fodder. Character is the spiritual and chemical soup that comprises what we mean by being human. It is the entirety of who we are, and it cannot be reduced to a series of algorithms.

Many economists or sociologists would look at Jones's initial conditions and agree that his life would become a portrait of destitution and lack. Yet here he is. How do we account for that? How could you guess that his experiences would have forged such inexorability? How could you reproduce that sensibly and reliably?

I went into the base with the loose aim of understanding what the Army has to teach mainstream education about pedagogy. I leave with the impression that this is the wrong question.

People asked me: "How does the Army take kids at A-level age, who often come from the worst backgrounds with little education, and turn them into disciplined machines?" On the surface, this is an attractive enquiry. But consider: all recruits go through a rigorous selection process and, unlike school, each successful applicant has chosen to be there.

Second, there is the training process: anyone who doesn't cut the mustard is simply cut. Everyone knows that if you muck about, or loaf or caper, the gates are right there. So by Darwinian means alone, those who make it through are dedicated and focused on their careers and education. Motivation is already high.

And for those who need a bit of reminding, there is always the famously no-nonsense approach towards blunt discipline that the Army enjoys. If schools could all select at point of entry, expel at will and get people in detention to scrub the school hall with a toothbrush, you might start to see similar levels of focus there, too. It is the simple difference between those who have fought to get in versus those who are forced to be there: volunteers versus conscripts.

So I didn't see any immediately obvious lessons for mainstream education in the Army's practice, simply because Army education is very, very special ed. And it does it very well.

Powerful relationships

That said, one thing that should permeate any understanding of the Army is the sense of it being a community, and for some a surrogate family. Soldiers often live and train on base, inside the Army universe. Your colleagues are your friends and your superiors are your line managers and patriarchsmatriarchs. Your sense of worth is wrapped up in the sense of professional pride and membership of that community. If your home was dislocated to begin with, I can see how easy it would be to transfer loyalty completely to your barracks. I have taught many children who lacked that simple sense of belonging to anything, which meant they frequently valued little, including themselves. There is a reason why soldiers often retain a deep allegiance to their units long after they demob.

If schools can begin to do something like this themselves, they, too, can nurture deep and powerful relationships with their students.

Jones now works as a learning development officer in an Army Education Centre teaching soldiers on career leadership and management programmes. His hobbies include watercolours, poetry and gardening.

He's an amazing advert for how far an Army education can take a person. But his story is also a reminder that every "lost cause" has potential. For as good as the Army may be for people like Jones, at the end of the day the catalyst for his transformation came from within. He worked at it. He decided it was time to change his life.

He was the man in far-flung corners of the globe painstakingly moving his way through a Hardy novel, trailing his finger down the pages of the dictionary as he went. What an extraordinary man he is and what extraordinary people those students at the very edges of your school can become, if he can.

Free inside this week's issue: Tom Bennett's 16-page behaviour guide; his column is on page 21

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