For The Guardian on February 26, 2014—
“Zoe Williams obscures the context in which army education takes place (Meet the graduates of the mud-crawl challenge, 22 February). Army recruitment materials actively target young teenagers. A child can begin the enlistment process at the age of 15 years and seven months – before they sit their GCSEs. As there is no minimum entrance qualification for many army roles, there is no incentive for would-be recruits to work towards their exams.
Those who enlist at 16 are offered the lowest level of qualifications which can form an “apprenticeship”. This is despite the fact that educationists and industry bodies agree that GCSEs in English and maths are the essential minimum attainment required by all young people to succeed in employment today. The MoD claims that these qualifications are “available” to soldiers who choose to study “in their free time”, but last year just 20 soldiers in an army of over 78,000 enlisted personnel had obtained a GCSE in English or maths within four years of joining.
Ms Williams ignores the fact that the Department for Education has a legal obligation to provide accessible, good-quality education free of charge to all young people. Where it is failing to do so this must be remedied, but not by forcing minors to join the army simply to access their basic right to education.
Raising the enlistment age to 18 would save the MoD over £94m annually. That sum would pay for every recruit now at Harrogate – plus 24,000 of their friends – to do a highly sought-after civilian vocational apprenticeship, every year. Now that really would be hard not to admire.
Director, Child Soldiers International
• Zoe Williams, on her visit to the army college in Harrogate, seems to have been charmed by the pomp and ceremony. But why does the UK have the lowest recruiting age in Europe, and why is it the only permanent member of the UN security council that recruits 16-year-olds into its army? The UN defines a child soldier as any member of an armed group under 18 years old, and the UK has blocked changes to the protocols seeking to make 18 years the minimum age of recruitment. As we enter the centenary of the first world war, let us remember that they had to be 18 years old to join up and 19 years old to fight overseas. Today they can join at 16 and fight overseas aged 18. What progress have we made? A study last year found those recruited at 16 were twice as likely to die as a consequence of deployment to Afghanistan than those who enlisted as adults. Is it not time to be mature, protect our young and raise the recruitment age to 18 years old?
Dr Rupert Gude
• I joined the Royal Navy at 15 years old in the 1960s, and a letter was sent home to my parents from the training establishment I was sent to saying: “Our aim here is to build up a boy’s character and at the same time continue his general education.” What my time in training entailed was actually to have my individuality beaten out of me, to suffer endless petty punishments and to watch a bullying culture encouraged by the people put in my charge. A couple of hours in a classroom each day is not an education, and to live in a society where children are trained for war, and to have this dressed this up as an education that is “hard not to admire”, leaves me feeling depressed.
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