While many FE courses involve hands-on learning, most students would baulk at the prospect of being forced to complete sit-ups, press-ups and a 1.5 mile run in order to obtain a qualification. But that is exactly what will face the first cohort of learners at Bicton College's new residential military academy when it opens in September.
The scheme marks a radical change in direction for the Devon agricultural college, which is more used to teaching horticulture than hand-to-hand combat. The academy will be the first of its kind to be established within a publicly funded FE institution. An initial intake of 50 students will complete a 25-week course, designed in partnership with the nearby Commando Training Centre Royal Marines in Lympstone, Devon.
The programme has been created for students wanting to pursue a career in the armed forces, to "prepare them in being successful in the recruitment process and ultimately initial military training". A combination of college lecturers and former military personnel will use "a variety of military training approaches in order to develop students' self-esteem, independence, maturity, respect and leadership qualities". Applicants must be under 25 and will be expected to meet minimum fitness standards. Their fitness levels will be continuously measured through regular physical tests and learners will be required to demonstrate improvements during their time at the academy.
College principal David Henley described the academy as an "exciting and important project". "Students will benefit from Bicton's unique and supportive learning environment, coupled with the benefit of gaining military insights and disciplines," he said. "Our academy is set apart from other military preparation courses not just because ex-military staff will be delivering much of the subject matter, but because of the fully residential nature of the programme. This approach will better prepare the learners as separation from loved ones is recognised as one of the major risks for recruits not completing initial military training."
The course includes literacy and numeracy teaching to provide learners with a qualification that is also useful for civilian careers. While the scheme has not yet been formally approved by the Ministry of Defence, officials have been closely involved and are monitoring the academy's progress closely. It also has the backing of the Association of Colleges and Skills for Justice, the sector skills council for justice, community safety and legal services.
Minutes of a meeting of Bicton College's governors in November reveal that the academy was conceived to reduce initial training costs within the armed forces. Currently, the Royal Marines drop-out rate during initial training is over 40 per cent - a significant expense considering that the weekly cost of providing the intensive training stands at #163;1,500 per recruit. The college academy will provide a route for potential recruits to experience military life before embarking on this initial training, while also training them to be better equipped to complete it.
The minutes also acknowledge concerns about opening the academy at a time when military spending and staffing is being cut back. "Attracting and retaining well-prepared entry-level recruits will become even more essential as constraints on training budgets impact," the minutes read. "The scale of potential demand is significant, with over 1,000 recruits progressing through Lympstone alone. Our advice is that the original 50 student target is very feasible and that we would be able to scale up our activity above this once the programme gains traction."
The academy certainly has the support of some influential partners, but the college still has work to do if it is to attract the student numbers needed to make it a long-term success.
50 - The number of places on offer
25 - Length of the course in weeks
25 - The maximum age of students.