With the education participation age due to be raised next year, a new report has criticised the military for failing to educate students to government standards and refusing to end recruitment at 16.
The Ministry of Defence said its training programme, which includes lessons in English, maths and IT as well as military training and the offer of apprenticeships, means it will fulfil the requirements of the legislation surrounding the raising of the participation age.
But a report by Child Soldiers International (CSI), Mind the Gap: education for minors in the British armed forces, says that armed forces training does not meet the government's expectations for education, as set out in its independent Wolf report. It also says the military has no data to show whether recruits at 16 and 17 take up apprenticeships with transferable skills.
Under-18s now form just 14 per cent of armed forces recruitment in the UK, or about 2,000 recruits a year, down from a high of about 30 per cent at the millennium. "China doesn't recruit at 16. It's only countries like Iran, Zimbabwe, North Korea and so on. Which tells a story in itself," said Richard Clarke, director of CSI.
According to the MoD, all under-18 soldiers are enrolled on a level 2 apprenticeship for IT users, including functional skills at level 1. Those who achieve level 1 are offered the chance to study to level 2.
As the government is increasing the pressure for all students to achieve GCSEs in English and maths, the MoD said the armed forces would also support soldiers in lifelong learning through a Standard Learning Credit scheme, which can fund up to 80 per cent of course fees at civilian institutions. With only #163;175 available per year, however, achieving a GCSE would be a lengthy task.
Mr Clarke said the MoD had not produced evidence that soldiers recruited at 16 and 17 studied for anything more than the most basic requirements of level 1 in functional skills. Only about five hours a week of army training was devoted to education, compared with 22 hours in schools, he said.
It is also not cost-effective: armed forces training for an under-18 recruit costs #163;65,000, compared with #163;23,000 for older recruits. That money could be used to provide under-18s with far better vocational and academic skills prior to them joining the army, Mr Clarke argued. "At a time when the army is reducing in size, reducing costs, to pay over the odds to get underperforming education and skills provision doesn't make sense," he said.
The employment record of ex-servicemen and women is patchy. The MoD has claimed that 93 per cent are in work within six months of leaving the military, but that figure includes older recruits with higher educational attainment, and even university-educated officers.
A report by the British Legion found that among 18- to 49-year-olds, the unemployment rate of the ex-military was double that of the rest of the population. "This may indicate a lack of transferable skills, coupled with an unwillingness to retrain later in life," the British Legion concluded.
With many recruits leaving in their 20s, they are likely to have 40 years or more in the labour market. "There is no satisfactory tracking of the kinds of employment people are getting after leaving the army," Mr Clarke said. "How many of them are in the shadowy world of nightclub bouncers or security?"
An MoD spokesman said: "We certainly have no plans to change recruitment from 16. It's still the age at which people can leave and go into work." He said the armed forces training would meet the requirements of the Education and Skills Act 2008.