'An army education is no substitute for college'
25 July 2012
Mathilde Bienvenu, of Child Soldiers International, sets out the key findings of a new report into the education offered to 16-year-olds joining the army
The UK's policy of recruiting into the army from the age of 16 years is increasingly out of sync with international trends and national education and social mobility policies. No other country in Europe, no other country in NATO and no other permanent member of the UN Security Council recruits from such a young age.
Among the main justifications for setting the minimum recruitment age at 16 years is that it reflects the minimum statutory school-leaving age in the UK. In fact this justification – whilst technically correct – reflects an outdated perception of today's youth employment and education markets, in which very few people leave education at 16. In 2009/2010 only 6 per cent actually did so. This trend will be reflected in and consolidated by the increase in compulsory education to 18 being phased in by 2015.
By targeting minors for recruitment, the MoD is undermining decades of consistent government initiatives to encourage young people to stay in education until at least 18. In a report published today - Mind the Gap, Education for minors in the British armed forces - Child Soldiers International notes that it is with the schools and not with other employers that the Ministry of Defence is competing to attract under-18s into the armed forces.
When challenged on its recruitment age policy, the MoD has repeatedly claimed that it provides good educational opportunities for young people equipping them with valuable and transferrable skills. However, the curriculum for 16-18 year old army recruits is extremely limited in scope and quality, and it fails to meet the modern standards of qualification expected of it. The education and training on offer at Army Foundation College Harrogate and Army Technical Foundation College Winchester is predominantly focused on highly specialised military skills with very limited study for academic or formal qualifications of any sort. Recruits at AFC Harrogate spend approximately one hour per day on literacy, numeracy and IT (combined) with the rest of course time being dedicated to military training which has little or no transferrable value to any form of civilian employment.
Despite the assertions of the Ministry of Defence, this is not surprising: the army is not, cannot be and is not meant to be a substitute for providing a wide range of education and qualifications to young people. By actively recruiting teenagers who could and should benefit from completing their education, the MoD is denying them the opportunity to achieve essential qualifications which would allow them to compete in the job market.
In fact concerns about the future civilian employment prospects of minor recruits are far from hypothetical. Recruits who enlist as minors have an extremely high dropout rate from the armed forces and are therefore more likely than adults to need to find alternative civilian employment. In 2010/2011, 37 per cent of minors in the British army training dropped out before completing Phase Two. Across all three services, the dropout rate for minors from initial training was almost double the average for adults.
For those who successfully complete initial training, the average length of service for infantry soldiers who enlisted below the age of 18 was 10 years. Therefore most of recruits who enlisted as minors will be seeking alternative civilian employment by the age of 26-27; good qualifications and transferrable skills will be then essential for their long term employment prospects. The concerns about young recruits' prospects for successful transfer to civilian life are reflected in a 2006 Royal British Legion study which found unemployment rates among 18-49 year old veteran to be double the equivalent civilian average, with a lack of training, qualifications or skills explicitly cited as a problem among this age group.
Lastly, in addition to the significant financial wastage incurred by the high discharge rates, minors are more expensive to train than adults. Phase One training for a Junior Entry soldier at AFC Harrogate costs more than 3 times as much per recruit as equivalent training for an adult at the Army Training Centre Pirbright. An analysis of the cost-benefit estimate of recruiting minors shows that during the Financial Year 2010-2011 recruiting minors aged 16-17.5 into the British Army cost the MoD between £72m and £87m per annum in excess of the estimated cost of recruiting solely from age 17.5 and over. Focusing recruitment on more mature candidates who have a more realistic expectation of armed forces life and more settled career plans, would lead to significant resource savings.
The House of Commons Defence Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have all recommended that the Ministry of Defence review the recruitment age with a view to raising it to 18 years, but to date no such review has been undertaken.
As we move towards 18 as the new compulsory education participation age in the UK, phasing out the recruitment of minors will not only bring the UK into line with the growing international consensus towards 18 as the minimum age for all forms of armed forces recruitment, it will also significantly reduce Ministry of Defence expenditure on Phase One training. Most importantly, perhaps, it will ensure that government strategies on education and social mobility are implemented consistently across all departments, to the benefit of all young people irrespective of their future career path.