Young people who have chosen to join the Army straight from school receive their initial training at the British Army Foundation College, some 3 miles west of the spa town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire. MS&T’s Dim Jones visited to observe what goes on there.
The standard minimum age for joining any of the UK Armed Forces is 18, but all three services offer regular service employment from age 16 in apprentice or equivalent schemes. The principal difference is that those aged under 18 are still legally minors and, therefore, parental consent is required.
The Army apprenticeship scheme is the Army Foundation College (AFC), and it is open to young people starting training between the ages of 16 years 2 months and 17 years and 4 months.
The course at the AFC constitutes Basic Training. Junior Soldiers (JS) can move to and begin Initial Trade Training while under the age of 18; there are well-established mechanisms and safeguarding protocols within the Army to allow this to happen. Soldiers who complete Initial Trade Training and move to the field army while still under 18 can join their selected Regiment or Corps as a fully trained and qualified soldier, but cannot be deployed on operations.
AFC Harrogate is the successor of young entrant organisations such as the Junior Leaders Regiments of the 1950s and later.
Today, a young person wishing to join the Army through the AFC will probably have been attracted to it either by a visit to a Careers Office or, more likely, through online and social media advertising; either way, they will complete an application form online. They will apply to join a specified regiment or corps, and will need to satisfy the minimum educational requirements for that role. They will also have to meet a basic fitness level, and undergo an interview before being selected.
Successful candidates will be offered a place at the AFC and, depending on their qualifications and their future employment, will be enrolled as JS for either a long (40-week) or short (20-week) course; the long course is principally for those joining the Infantry, Royal Armoured Corps/Household Cavalry, Royal Artillery and some Royal Logistics Corps specialisations, and the short course for those whose Phase 2 training courses are longer, such as Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), Royal Engineers (RE), Royal Signals (R SIGNALS), Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC), Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), Army Air Corps (AAC) and the remainder of the RLC roles. There are two intakes annually, in March and September. JS have the opportunity to change cap badge while at AFC, provided that they meet the relevant educational and physical requirements, and vacancies exist.
AFC Harrogate opened in 1998, and the College was rebuilt under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) between 2000 and 2002; it is now run as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) between the MoD and Compass Group. The College, which has around 250 permanent staff, has the capacity to train over 1,300 JS simultaneously; the current trainee population is around 900, and represents about 25% of the total annual intake to the Army.
There are 5 Training Companies (Coy) – Cambrai and Burma (short course) and Alamein, Peninsula and Waterloo – plus Robertson Coy, which provides the training support function, Korea Coy (Logistics) and Fox Coy (Sport and Physical Development). All roles in the British Army are now open to both male and female, provided that they meet the educational standards and the fitness requirements, which vary from corps to corps.
Each JS will be placed on arrival in a platoon (pln) within one of the training companies, and will remain in that pln throughout, unless recoursed for some reason. A pln will be commanded by a Lieutenant, assisted by a Pln Sergeant and a Section Corporal for each of 3 or 4 sections.
As in every training establishment, quality of instruction is key, and the staff will have been assessed throughout their careers for suitability to instruct and at what levels, and carefully selected thereafter.
Every platoon has both male and female JS; they train together, but are accommodated separately. They live in 10-person rooms within the Company accommodation, and each JS has a bed-space comprising separate wardrobes for military and civilian clothing and equipment, a desk, and the ubiquitous yellow dummy SA-80 rifle with which they can practice weapon handling and drill movements.
The first 6 weeks of each course is devoted to core military skills, such as Fieldcraft, Skill at Arms, Fitness training, Qualities of a Soldier, Military Knowledge and Core Values and, of course, the inevitable Drill. At the end of this period, the JS will take part in a ‘Passing-In Parade’.
Thereafter, while maintaining these core skills, the emphasis is on development and education. To put the AFC in perspective, in terms of military knowledge and proficiency, a JS on graduation should have reached the same level as an adult recruit who will have undergone a 14-week course at the Army Training Centre at Pirbright or Winchester.
The balance of the AFC long or short course is devoted to development and education, military, academic and social. The classroom work and most of the outside learning is instructor-led, and there is little use of computer-based or synthetic training; there is, however, a Dismounted Close Combat Trainer (DCCT) in support of skill-at-arms.
AFC JS come from a variety of backgrounds, and will arrive at Harrogate with a broad spectrum of qualifications. For Infantry, RAC and RA, no formal educational qualifications are required, whereas to be a REME Electronics Technician, a candidate will need General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) Grade A–C/9-4 in at least English Language, Maths and Science.
To help in developing academic skills, a large part of the AFC staff is devoted to teaching. Teaching services are contracted out to educational company Pearson TQ, who employ 68 staff; class sizes, in stark contrast to civilian education, are a maximum of 12, but more normally 6 or 7. The long course syllabus concentrates on Functional Skills in Maths, English and ICT at Level 1, with an option to progress to Level 2 (which they will need later for promotion to Sergeant) and the award of a Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) qualification.
The Army Foundation College Crest.
Credit: UK MOD Crown Copyright 2022 / Cpl Danielle Dawson RLC
The current generation of JS have been significantly affected, both educationally and socially, by the Covid pandemic and its consequences. All have had to cope to a greater or lesser degree with virtual learning, and the ability of households to accommodate this varied widely. Just as importantly, this generation of young people have been starved of social interaction at a critical formative stage of their lives, and it shows. The attitudes and behaviours they exhibit stem to a greater extent from parental or family influence, and less from a school peer group, so they have to learn how to behave around others, not least in the relationships between male and female. A lot of this will come naturally through living and training together, and a significant catalyst is fitness training, which is a thread which runs throughout the course and concentrates on physical resilience and resistance to injury.
The facilities at Harrogate are excellent, and are open to JS outside course hours in addition to the formal syllabus. A wide variety of sports, both individual and team, are mentored by nominated staff members, who use their expertise to develop the talents of their young charges. Some JS have never learned to swim, and will be required to pass the Army Swim Test, so they can learn in the 25-metre pool under the tutelage of qualified instructors. Those members of staff who have civilian coaching qualifications are encouraged to ‘moonlight’ by offering their services to Pearson for extracurricular training. ‘An army marches on its stomach’, and the energy expended by JS on their course activities is refuelled in an excellent catering facility, with mealtimes staggered so that it can cope with the numbers involved.
Up until ‘Passing-In’, JS are confined to camp; following it, they have a week’s leave and, on return, are given much more freedom, commensurate with their status as minors. They are still restricted to camp during the week, but can go out at the weekends, provided the staff know where they are.
One significant event on arrival at the College is the surgical removal of the mobile phone and the severance, during working hours, of the life support provided by the internet and social media. I am far too old to have experienced this dependence myself, but I should imagine that it would be fairly traumatic. The JS are reunited with their phones in the evenings, and also have access to the internet in the Wellbeing Centre, an excellent social facility. They can make use of a shop and other catering outlets and are paid up to £1200 per month while at the College. The short course makes provision for 3 weeks leave, and the long course for 8.
Other escapes from the confines of the AFC are a week-long study trip to the battlefields of northern France, and a series of exercises on various training ranges, which increase in duration and complexity as the course progresses. The exercise scenarios are based on dismounted infantry tactics, and afford the opportunity for the development of leadership. Additional Leadership and Initiative exercises, in the form of Adventure Training, are part of the remit of Fox Coy. Back at Harrogate, the curriculum includes Navigation, Medical, Communications Information Systems (CIS) and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) training.
The largest ceremony of its kind in Europe as hundreds of soldiers pass out of training at AFC Harrogate.
Credit: UK MOD Crown Copyright 2022 / Sgt Benjamin Maher RLC
If there is a word other than ‘development’ and ‘education’ to describe the priorities in training of JS, it is ‘safeguarding’; the AFC staff are acting ‘in loco parentis’ and are acutely aware of it. The JS come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, many of them disadvantaged, and arrive with a varying ability to adapt to what is, quite intentionally, a seismic change in their circumstances; inevitably, there will be some who struggle. There will be some who decide that the Army life is not for them and, if their parents agree, parental consent can be withdrawn and the individual’s service automatically terminated. For others who need help to adjust, the primary means of obtaining it is through the chain of command.
There is also a wide variety of professional welfare help available. The Wellbeing Centre is staffed by Royal Voluntary Service welfare personnel, who are always there to lend an ear and, if they cannot solve a problem, will refer to others: there is a dedicated Welfare Officer and deputy, and an extremely well-qualified Wellbeing Support Officer. Pastoral help is also available from the Chaplaincy staff, whom the JS will know because the Padres deliver the ‘Values and Standards’ element of the course, although some of the JS may never have been in a church in their lives. A JS can approach any of these people direct to obtain help with any problem – for instance there may be the trauma of the loss of a loved grandparent who had been influential in a JS’s upbringing – and time will be found for the necessary consultation.
It would appear that those with such problems are not shy in sharing their troubles with their peers, which is also a help. To give an idea of the level of care available, during my conversation with the Wellbeing Support Officer, my escorting staff member described the behaviour of an unnamed trainee. The WSO was instantly able to supply a physical description of the JS in question, and could have supplied a name without further reference: pretty impressive, out of a JS population of 900. Even should a problem result in the JS eventually leaving the College, just one day of service will qualify them for two years of Army welfare support.
Inevitably, there will be exceptions to the smooth resolution of problems, and some of these have excited media attention over the past few years, most notably those involving alleged abuse by members of staff, some of which have been proven and disciplinary action taken. Issues of racial and sexual harassment in the UK Armed Forces have also been addressed by studies and by policy statements from the senior leadership. Although taken extremely seriously, and urgently dealt with by the College and the Army at large, these need to be kept in perspective. Set against the total throughput of the College, the numbers are extremely small – not that this excuses even one of them, but they need to be judged in the context of the success rate. The UK’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) rated the AFC ‘Outstanding’ for its duty of care during inspections in 2018 and its report for the 2021 visit noted that: 'Recruits speak consistently of fair and respectful treatment from all staff’. I have read reports quoting parents who say their children wanted to leave the College, and were told that they were committed to the Army and could not do so; I am somewhat bemused that withdrawal of parental consent was not used.
Criticism has also been levelled at Ofsted, and the results achieved by JS measured against what young people might have achieved had they stayed in civilian education until 18. This assumed that those entering AFC would have stayed in education, and also ignored that fact that the College gives them a head start in adult life, and the springboard to a trade and professional qualifications. Certainly, the pictures of proud parents, grandparents and siblings at the Passing-Off Parade, to say nothing of the graduates themselves, suggests that the successes far outweigh the failures, and the JS with whom I spoke, although only in Week 4 of the course, were friendly, enthusiastic and outgoing.
As a footnote, one of the 8 young men who performed such sterling duty as coffin-bearers at the funeral of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was a recent Harrogate graduate.
Lastly, those who did not spend the pandemic in UK may not be familiar with the late Captain Tom Moore, a WWII veteran who raised £32.7m for the National Health Service by walking a set route in his garden 100 times before his 100th birthday. He was knighted by Her Majesty in recognition of his efforts and, on his centenary, Sir Tom visited the AFC and was made its Honorary Colonel, an honour which he prized and a connection which visitors to the College today cannot fail to notice.