The Ministry of Defence wants its soldiers to be competent in the classroom and on the battlefield. George Low reports
From now on, when a sergeant tells an Army recruit to smarten up, he will be more likely to send him to an FE college than back to the barracks to polish his kit.
The Ministry of Defence has realised that, in military operations of the 21st century, the Army will need soldiers who can think even more than those who can fight.
A basic skills revolution is now under way as part of the Government's defence White Paper, launched last month, which will turn soldiering into a learning career.
The military top brass have decided that mentors to teach basic skills should be as much a part of the soldier's kit as flak jackets and water bottles. They will soon issue orders to recruiting offices to turn away young people without the minimum level 1 qualification (GCSE grade D-G or equivalent) in basic literacy.
Promotion boards will refuse a corporal's stripe to anyone without a basic literacy qualification, regardless of their combat record.
Col David Wilson, who has been drawing up the Army's new education policy, told the Basic Skills Agency annual conference in December that operations, such as those in Sierra Leone and Iraq, had convinced him that peace-keeping tasks were often more challenging than warfare.
"Even the most junior soldier has to record some information on paper. Most of their duties demand the use of numbers - for example, calculating how long a journey will take or how much water will be needed for a day in the tropical or desert heat. But these skills may take longer to develop."
English as a second language was also increasingly necessary, as the Army now had "healthy recruitment" from Commonwealth countries, he said.
"More than 7 per cent of our recruits now face ESOL challenges and we intend to address the problem head-on both for the soldiers and their families." At the moment very little time in basic training is devoted to these needs.
Former schoolteacher Lt Col Gary Morris said the Army recognised it had a long-standing skills deficit. "We still recruit a high proportion of those who struggle through school. Some 65,000 of our 103,000 soldiers currently have basic skills problems. But in modern operations they may have to work with graduates and take decisions based on complex orders they have received by radio or computer. We hope to recruit more soldiers of a better quality and train and keep them for a longer career. But this will not happen over night.'
He said soldiers would be able to study in 33 basic skill centres at home and overseas and he hoped that education and training would follow them round on operations, whether putting out fires or stamping out foot and mouth disease. Education services would also be provided for their families.
"We are setting a level 2 target for all soldiers and where they do not come up to the mark they will be referred to FE colleges or private providers. They will have mentors and sustained management support for continuing education, even on active service," said Lt Col Morris.
The Army hopes to announce the new educational policy shortly, for completion by 2013, so education would follow the troops throughout their career.
"Our people are generally highly motivated and, given the right support, they can do rather well. Some may even leave the Army with degrees," Lt Col Morris said. "But conventional FE courses, such as day release or Monday nights, will not work. It is not just the Army which will have to change its ways."
Both officers recognised that the new education policy, which aims to make the Army a high-tech career, was the most challenging reform the military has introduced for many years. It revived the concept of the "thinking, fighting soldier" and a system of education and training devised by Sir John Moore 200 years ago. The Duke of Wellington, who had a lower opinion of his men, later abandoned it. He called them "scum of the earth, who enlist for drink".