Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 22 August 2019. © Richard Kemp
GCSE results day is a time of celebration or sorrow for thousands of teenagers. It is also a day exploited by various NGOs and activists to have a go at the Army, who they accuse of luring disappointed 16-year-olds to sign up. True to form, this year it was the turn of Child Rights International Network to publish their report on results day.
CRIN say they’re worried about children’s rights being infringed by the opportunity to join the forces. But their real anti-military motive is betrayed in their press release that says young people “deserve better: meaningful civilian opportunities for education and employment”.
There can be few better opportunities for 16-year-olds, especially those from impoverished backgrounds who lack academic prowess, than junior military service that takes them seamlessly through education to life-long employment if they want it. The Army is the biggest apprenticeship provider in this country. But how would CRIN have a clue about this? I doubt any of them have served. They are Left-wing university graduates who could not contemplate the challenges facing youngsters lacking the advantages they themselves enjoyed.
I was once a junior soldiers’ instructor, part of a training regime that provided a unique grounding in discipline, leadership, sports and education leading to real academic qualifications, as well as full combat skills. Our young recruits took part in adventurous training activities including white water rafting, mountaineering and parachuting. Mentally and physically pitting themselves against the elements, the incalculable long-term benefits for a youngster’s character can rarely be equalled in any other environment. A recent National Child Development Study showed schemes that develop skills such as self-reliance and teamwork have lifelong benefits and remove the higher likelihood of mental illness in people from poorer backgrounds.
Today the Army Foundation College in Harrogate trains our junior soldiers. Led by officers educated under the motto “Serve to Lead”, they become part of a band of brothers, trained by instructors who care deeply about them and make efforts unseen in civilian education to encourage them to succeed.
One third of all male and female recruits entering Harrogate have been excluded from school. In the last 18 months the college achieved well over 70 per cent pass rates in GCSE equivalents compared to the average rate of 1.5 per cent in pupil exclusion referral units.
CRIN’s report, misleadingly entitled “Conscription by poverty”, attacks the higher proportion of young soldiers recruited from deprived backgrounds as if this were a bad thing. It is not. Twenty percent of junior soldiers today come from the lowest 5 per cent of the socio-economic strata – failed by every adult in their lives, failed by their school, familiar with drugs, known to the police and gravitating to street gangs because they are the only thing that offers membership and culture. Despite CRIN’s insulting report, by any measure the Army Foundation College must be the most successful education establishment and social mobility platform in the UK.
I served alongside many men from the most deprived backgrounds who, at 16, walked into a recruiting office and transformed their lives. They often made the best soldiers and a disproportionate number climbed to the highest ranks. Today over 50 per cent of the Army’s warrant officers – the most senior non-commissioned rank – started out as juniors.
Brian Wood joined in 1997 at 16 and served for 17 years achieving the rank of colour sergeant. He says that he owes everything to the start he was given as a junior soldier. He is now a successful author, speaker and mentor. He is an exception. But, having lived by the Army’s core values of courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment, junior soldiers are often sought by employers and go on to lead successful lives when their service ends. Yes, a tiny minority are damaged as a result of their service, as are some who join later, and some tragically end up on the streets. But this problem is greatly exaggerated in its scale by those who want to present soldiers as life’s victims.
Instead of trying to deny opportunities to disadvantaged 16-year-olds, groups like CRIN should celebrate the role the Army plays in providing the path to a successful life. Those of us who do not have an anti-military agenda admire and respect these young soldiers’ achievements and the contribution they make to the defence of our country.