When the issue of “child soldiers” came up during my time on the Defence Select Committee, I was sceptical of that description. It is easy to see the benefits of stability, discipline, and training that the Armed Forces can provide for school leavers. Yet, following analysis of the education offer currently available to 16-18 year olds and the outcomes they secure it seems a review of provision is required and new and better options are available.
The Defence Select Committee addressed this issue in their most recent report, Future Army 2020, published last week. The Committee urged the government to lay out a clear timeframe for a review across all the Armed Services of under-18 recruitment, and to make a rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits.
Child Soldiers International has argued for phasing out the recruitment of minors. They have drawn attention to many additional costs: drop-out rates among under-18 recruits are higher and the cost of training, when drop-out rates are taken into account, is almost double per person than for over-18s. Under-18s who do not go to a career in the Armed Forces are at the risk of leaving with few transferable skills, as the Ashcroft Review found.
In the light of this evidence, it is very difficult to conclude that a policy of recruiting under-18s offers value for money for the Armed Forces, and that Junior Entry is generally beneficial to the young people who take it up.
Despite this, we do need to offer 16-18 year olds a pathway into a career in the Armed Forces. For many of those who aspire to such a career, academic or other vocational study may be the wrong direction; and these formative years can be used to give young people an insight into a possible career in the Armed Forces. There is room for a middle option, where direct recruitment of under-18s is phased out but, instead, viable educational options leading to a career in the Armed Forces are offered.
Welbeck, the Defence Sixth Form College in Leicestershire already offers an education programme which prepares 16-18 year-olds for university education, followed by a career as an officer in their chosen Service. It has excellent retention rates and provides a strong and transferable academic foundation for those who don’t go on to enlist. Bicton College in Devon also offers academic programmes with core military training for young people who wish to join at non-commissioned rank. In a recent evaluation it had a 100 per cent completion rate.
The success of these institutions leads me to two possible options to replace direct recruitment of under-18s.
First, existing institutions for training under-18 recruits such as the Army Foundation College, Harrogate, could become a Welbeck- or Bicton-style academy. Entrance could be selective, including interviews and a fitness test, and and successful completion would guarantee a place in the relevant service.
The curriculum would include a compulsory Combined Cadet Force (CCF) component. The Armed Forces would benefit from well-qualified recruits; those not suited to a Forces career would not use up MOD training resources; and young people who chose not to enlist would have a sound and transferable academic foundation.
Alternatively, the Armed Forces could stop recruitment at age 16 and use the savings to create a national cadet scheme which would give much higher numbers of 16-18 year-olds the opportunity to experience military training and to decide if it would be a suitable career for them. This could be tied into recruitment for reservists, and reinforce that a career in the Armed Forces is worth exploring and aspiring to even if not on a full time basis, thereby aligning to the current direction of travel.
The evidence on recruitment of under-18s strongly suggests that it does not offer value for money to the MoD. High drop-out and early discharge rates mean that it may be harming the prospects of many young recruits, who ultimately do not stay with the Armed Forces for long. When new evidence comes to light, it is right to challenge received assumptions and make changes to the status quo.
At a time when the Armed Forces are undergoing reshaping, as part of Future Force 2020, it is an ideal point to reassess the policy of recruiting under-18s and consider alternative options.
These could prove to offer better value for money and be of greater benefit to the young people who may or may not go on to Armed Forces careers. Making tough decisions to change existing institutions is necessary if we are to strengthen our Armed Forces and give young people the skills and prospects they need to pursue a career that is right for them.