Why an army education is hard not to admire | Zoe Williams

In a robotic future, why train teenagers to fight on the ground? Army college brings other benefits aside from combat skills

“We don’t really say too much,” said Bradley Floyd, 17, about his friends who he hangs out with on leave, back home in Surrey. Floyd has been at the Army Foundation College, in Harrogate, for a year and just completed his phase one of training. On Thursday morning, they had their graduation ceremony; timeless pomp, unchanged over centuries (maybe with better transport links). “But I think they thought: ‘He’s got balls to do it.’ Especially when you get to the training regiment, you’re expected to be like a grownup, not a child. You’ve joined the army. You haven’t joined a school.”

Daniel Sanderson, 16, also graduating, agreed, of his school friends: “I think I’ve grown up a lot quicker and faster than them.”

There’s something anachronistic about this idea, boys of 16 and 17, training for combat, in a world where the direction of travel is to fight wars by remote control and “boots on the ground” are a last resort even now, never mind in 10 years.

This is the first year in a century of unbroken warfare that, once we pull out of Afghanistan, Britain will not be at war with anyone. Defence spending is being cut; 2014 will see the last of three tranches of redundancies, the aim being to reduce the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000 (in context, the biggest single employer is the NHS, with nearly 900,000 staff; so the army isn’t vast, but it’s significant). It is not a boomtime for war, but that doesn’t trouble any of these new recruits. As Sanderson says confidently, “I hope to see some active service. I think something will always be going on somewhere in the world.”

This whole business swarms with anachronisms that are both subtler and more profound than the idea of training for war in a roboticised future. I don’t just mean that, before we could do the phone interviews, the room had to be cleared of ceremonial swords (though that’s a first).

All these trainees came out of school with not much to speak of, GCSE-wise – Sanderson couldn’t remember how many he’d taken, Bradley Ellington, 17, “left school with nothing”, and Floyd – who won best junior soldier from the intake, “didn’t do any GCSEs whatsoever”. After only a year (in Sanderson’s case, six months), they have all come out with level-2 English, maths and IT qualifications (these are half a GCSE at grade B), and they all speak glowingly of the whole experience, about which they noticeably do not about school.

“I’m quite chuffed with that,” said Floyd, about his level-2s. “The teachers are a lot more relaxed, it’s a good teaching environment. They treat you like adults who want to learn.” Ellington added: “It was more one-to-one with the tutor. If you’re struggling with something, he can help you because there’s not so many people in the classroom”.

Noticeably, they have a lot of …read more    

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