Fighting fit: how the Army steps in where school falls short

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
Deaths among the British military in Afghanistan have topped 300, but away from the front line the armed forces carve out a more peaceful role as the UK's leading training provider, educating thousands of school leavers. Alan Thomson reports

"It's surprising how you can concentrate in a battle zone," says Staff Sergeant Del Davies of his three-month tour in Afghanistan. "Even with incoming mortar fire, people just carry on."

It's a soldier's response, but what may come as a surprise - at least to many in the civilian world - is that Staff Sgt Davies, a member of the Army, is not talking about the ability to focus on combat duties, but on his academic studies.

Already the holder of a foundation degree in aeronautical engineering, he is aiming for a BSc in the subject.

"It would be silly not to go for a full degree now. In fact, it's almost more difficult not to follow through with qualifications here," he says.

Quite a turn of events for a young lad who joined up straight from school 19 years ago with two C-grade GCSEs. But Staff Sgt Davies is hardly unique - for while the Army prides itself in turning boys into men, it also turns thousands of the most poorly educated people in the country into some of the best trained in the world.

Where once the recruiting slogan was, "join the Army, see the world" it might now be better expressed as "join the Army, get an education".

The figures are remarkable. From April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009, armed forces personnel achieved more than 25,400 qualifications from level 2 to level 8.

The Army, the largest of the armed forces, is the biggest trainer, delivering 7,878 qualifications across all levels during the same period. This included 3,344 level 2 qualifications, 1,307 level 3s and 1,830 levels 4 and 5. Some 11,000 soldiers are currently enrolled on apprenticeships.

Staff Sgt Davies is an instructor at the School of Electronic and Aeronautical Engineering at Arborfield, Berkshire, part of the Ministry of Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering. These days the school, which trains people to repair and maintain helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, tends to take young men and women who already have A-levels.

One of Staff Sgt Davies' charges is Craftsman (Private) Gary Nash, who attended Oldham Sixth Form College with a view to taking A-levels.

"I did my AS-levels and decided it was not the route I wanted to take. I played football with an aircraft technician who said his course was the best you could do," Craftsman Nash says, standing beside the Lynx helicopter he is working on.

"I enjoy the lifestyle and, as far as getting a trade, this is what it is all about. I have a friend who has just finished his university course and he's off to Australia to take a year out (because) there are no jobs here."

In contrast to his friend, Craftsman Nash is nearing completion of an advanced apprenticeship in aircraft maintenance - and has been earning a wage thoughout. He is aiming for an aeronautical engineering degree and to become a class 1 aircraft artificer - the person responsible for ensuring an aircraft is combat ready.

The journey from new recruit to class 2 technician in aircraft or avionics engineering takes two-and-a-half years, at the end of which trainees have a level 3 technical certificate and NVQ level 3 and level 2 key skills. This is effectively the end of the apprenticeship - but not the last rung on the educational ladder.

After spending four years in the field, soldiers can come back to gain their class 1 certification. After this they are normally promoted to staff sergeant. If they choose to become an artificer they study for a foundation degree in avionics at Kingston University which they can "top up", as Sgt Davies intends, to a BSc.

Following this route, a school-leaver could be an officer by their mid- 30s. This may sound like a long slog, but a commission would have been unthinkable for the vast majority of the teenagers who start these courses. If they see this training through and show aptitude, a commission is a realistic career option for many.

But along with many other government-funded organisations, the MoD is under financial pressure following last week's Budget.

Colonel Steve Ellison, who runs the Army's department of education and training, said that a major concern relates to the pound;27 million budget it receives from the Learning and Skills Council, now the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

The SFA sits withing the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and it, along with other Government departments, is facing cuts of at least 25 per cent over the next three years.

"The MoD is no different from the rest of the public sector, and one of the biggest challenges we have to deal with is the pressure on the SFA budget," says Colonel Ellison.

"Basically, we have to work harder to find the time in a high-tempo military day to ensure that soldiers have the opportunity (to) gain accreditation," he says.

For those who believe the military's unique selling point is combat, it may come as a surprise that Colonel Ellison describes the Army as "fundamentally a learning organisation": "It is a professional expectation that's supported on a peer-to-peer basis, that it is the right thing to develop military skills which are then tested in theatre.

"These are skills that people need to be an effective soldier," he continues. "But some 13,000 to 14,000 people leave the Army every year, taking those skills with them and so this is a significant investment in UK plc."

The Army provides most of its own instructors, who attend the Advanced Staff Leadership School at Pirbright. Here, they qualify with a level 4 qualification in the skills required to train and motivate recruits. Most are former military personnel, mainly from the Army, and are now working as civilian trainers.

Back at Arborfield, former soldier Francis "Taff" Hunt is in charge of traning delivery. One of his former students is his avionics training manager Mick Harris. The third member of the team is Michael "Taff" Hodges, who trained with the RAF.

The issues and challenges faced by the training management team would sound familiar to any teacher in a college.

"We used to test people out and if they failed then they were out," says Mr Hunt. "We now put them through things again and again. It costs money to train people, so now it is about spotting weaknesses early and giving them extra training."

Mr Harris agrees: "I think it gives a better product now - if anything, the quality of theoretical knowledge is better now."

Mr Hunt adds: "But the hand skills are abysmal - in a throwaway society, young people have never learned to fix things, like stripping down a bike, before they come here."

Mr Hodges agrees: "So you get people with 80 or 90 per cent in their theory tests but who fail their practicals."

The general standard of new recruits has been a source of concern for the trainers, just as it is for teachers elsewhere.

"We do not alter the standards and, ultimately, if they do not make the grade then they do not pass," says Mr Hunt. "But the input standards do fluctuate if recruitment is low. A few years ago we were taking people with 75 per cent in their British Army Recruit Battery test, now the pass rate is 85 per cent."

And, like teachers everywhere, the men have had to manage changes in the way education and training is delivered, often due to the need for greater efficiency.

"Five years ago courses were three to four months longer than they are now. It is cost-cutting," says Mr Hunt.

"The training time may have deteriorated, but not the outputs or the effort that the students and the trainers put in," adds Mr Harris.

"And there is no hiding place for instructors," says Mr Hodge. "Mick (Harris) and I assess all the instructors taking a lesson at least once a year and we're always walking around. They all teach to the system and the test. People's lives are at risk and that's the way it has to be."

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