Phil Revell joins some budding squadies for a down-to-earth taste of Army life
It's pouring with rain. A wet soldier is guarding a collection of armoured cars inside a small barbed-wire compound. Beyond the wire is a small town with shops, schools, pubs and some down-at-heel housing estates. Bosnia? Ulster? No, this is Catterick, the North Yorkshire base of the British Army and temporary home to a group of teenage boys who have come to "look at life" in the Army.
The Army has been running Look at Life courses for some years, and several thousand young people participate each year in the North Yorkshire area alone. "We get the full ability range," says Major Tony Ross, Army careers adviser for an area which covers 161 schools.
Pupils can be from Year 10 upwards and the Army claims that there is no discrimination. Girls are welcome, but a shortage of female instructors means that some residential courses are limited to boys. Budding squaddies have to be fit enough to cope with "an active five days" and resilient enough to mix successfully with the other course participants, who could be from several different schools and a range of ages.
"First of all they'll make a bed," says Major Ross. "Then they'll realise that six o'clock comes twice in a day. They sit and eat meals with soldiers, they'll go out on a night exercise. They'll see that sometimes it can get quite frightening - but it's got to be fun."
Lieutenant Thompson of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment is in charge of the course on my visit. As we join them, non-commissioned officers Corporal O'Hara and Sergeant Campbell are briefing the boys on the rudiments of a night bivouac. Corporal O'Hara opens a field ration kit for the boys to see, having previously set up a shelter. "A microwave is not part of the kit," he says. "Here we have the main meals of the day - Lancashire hot pot and chicken and pasta."
"Brown goo and yellow goo," says the boy nearest me.
"And this is chocolate pudding and rice pudding."
"Looks like somebody dug that up," says the culinary critic.
"You'll all get a chance to have a go at these tonight," says Sarge, to a chorus of groans.
Nick Hawgate is in Year 10 at the non-selective Tadcaster Grammar School. He has come on the course "to see how the Army works, see how they train".
Partner Andrew Kay has looked forward to the challenge of doing something different. Nick has never slept outside before, especially not in November in the pouring rain.
"I'm a bit worried about the weather," he says with feeling.
The Army is not bothered about the weather, having full confidence in the kit the group is going to use.
"Full waterproofs, Goretex sleeping bags, night shelters," says liaison officer Captain Alison Savage, and, she adds, "The NCOs will be with them. "
The boys spend most of their time with the NCOs, and success or failure of the week clearly depends on how they handle the group. Yet they are regular army soldiers with no special role to entertain visiting schoolchildren.
"Last week we had a (army) group to teach hand grenades and bayonet skills. You know, being aggressive with them," said one. "This week we've got a bunch of schoolkids. To transfer from one to the other isn't easy. Last night they were up at two o'clock in the morning in the dorm. We heard them laughing and messing about and went in to shut them up. The real recruits next door have to get up in the morning to go to work."
The NCOs are well aware of the potential for bullying that comes in such a situation and were honest in their approach to the subject. "If we see it, we stop it," says one. "But we don't know these lads that well, and it can be hard to spot."
Teachers who have sent their students on Look at Life courses are positive about the results. "I don't have any anxieties," says Mr Flood, the careers master at Tadcaster school. "The boys think that they are a lot of fun, very challenging."
Mark Walmsley, Head of Year 11 at Ercall Wood School in Telford, has sent students on Look at Life course for some years. "They are exactly what they say they are," he says. "The courses best suit those who have had some experience through cadets." Mr Walmsley is particularly impressed by the reports that the Army provides to the school afterwards.
"The reports are very thorough," he says. "One boy was told that he needed to improve his physical condition. He also found it difficult to work alongside others."
The Army runs five-day Look at Life courses in each of their administrative areas. The actual programme the students follow depends on the operational availability of troops. A one-day Look at Life I attended had a less than exciting tour around a very damp helicopter base. A combination of the weather and the sudden deployment of half the squadron elsewhere restricted what they could realistically see and do. Students do not get any "live" firing, or much contact with weapons. Something the Tadcaster boys are a mite disappointed about. But they do seem to have a good time. Unlike the squaddie guarding the armoured cars, who is still locked in his enclosure in the rain as I leave the base.
For information about Look at Life courses and other Army careers initiatives contact local Army Careers Offices