UK military school audit reveals teenage recruits at risk


Concerns over the safety and welfare of 16- and 17-year-old soldiers have emerged in an internal audit that flagged up a string of issues relating to staff, the standard of education and living conditions, the Guardian can reveal.

The audit found that a drive to fast-track late joiners at the Army Foundation College (AFC), which trains and educates teenage recruits, had led to significant issues including skewing staff/student ratios in risk-to-life activities such as weapons training. It also found some staff had not received criminal record clearance before arriving at the college.

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The audit concluded that able teenagers were not being challenged in lessons at the college in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and some recruits were unhappy about their accommodation and food.

AFC Harrogate hit the headlines in March when it emerged that 28 recruits aged 16 and 17 had claimed they were assaulted and abused by instructors during a battle camp in the summer of 2014. The case against the instructors collapsed after concerns over how the investigation had been handled.

The audit took place in 2015 and has come to light now because of a parliamentary question put by Liz Saville Roberts, the leader of Plaid Cymru at Westminster, who said it raised concerns about the policy of the armed forces recruiting minors.

The audit report flags up “many areas of good practice” at AFC Harrogate. But problem areas highlighted include:

 Instructors arriving at the college without disclosure and barring service (DBS) certification.
 Significant issues being created by the arrival of fast-track late joiners – particularly in relation to staff/student ratios in risk-to-life activities such as “skill at arms” – weapons training.
 Substantial numbers of instructors arriving without the necessary training – causing a significant factor contributing to instructor overstretch.
The auditors heard concerns from staff over the discipline of junior soldiers (JS) and restrictions on penalties they could impose. “It was perceived by staff that JS know the limitations of the system and are adept at exploiting them. Staff authority is undermined,” it said.

Junior soldiers expressed concern about their living conditions. The report said: “Crockery is often dirty; dinner regularly appears to be the leftovers from lunch … JS felt that to complain would be fruitless.” A female junior soldier spoke of a lack of heating in some of their rooms. She did not report it, thinking cold rooms were part of army life.

The report also said junior soldiers were not medically screened to assess them fit for service until they were at the college, resulting in some being discharged within days of arriving. Junior soldiers arriving at the college with good numeracy and literacy found lessons “boring, uninspiring and lacking any meaningful differentiation,” the report said.

Last week the Guardian revealed that the army had been spoon-feeding graduates of AFC Harrogate identikit quotes to be used in local and regional newspaper articles extolling life in the military.

Rachel Taylor, director of programmes at Child Soldiers International, said the audit report showed what recruits and instructors really felt.

She said: “It reveals boredom and ill-discipline in the classroom, frequent cancellation of training activities, high dropout rates, and widespread complaints about the quality of accommodation and food. Even more worrying is the lack of attention given to the safety and welfare of these young recruits.”

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Emma Sangster, coordinator at ForcesWatch, said: “This audit confirms our evidence that the provision is substandard. This audit points to a number of issues of significant concern with the army’s training college for its youngest recruits.”

The army said issues highlighted in the report had been considered and, where appropriate, addressed. A spokesperson said: “We take the welfare and duty of care of all our soldiers, especially those at Harrogate, extremely seriously. Internal inspections are a part of our rigorous regime of safeguards to ensure this, and are conducted exactly for the purpose of identifying areas where we can improve.

“The areas highlighted in this report, from 2015, have been considered and where appropriate addressed. The Army Foundation College (Harrogate) was inspected by Ofsted in November 2017 and we are looking forward to the publication of the report later this month.”

On the specific point regarding DBS checks it said any military personnel arriving on site without clearance are either returned to their previous unit or are subject to a plan to ensure they are not left unsupervised with recruits. A special team had been set up to address the skill at arms point.

An independent advisory panel that carried out visits in 2017 painted a brighter picture. It said: “The IAP is confident that the duty of care to junior soldiers is actively embedded throughout the college.”

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