'When you are cooking for 80 soldiers, often under fire, with one oven, you need to be good at maths! '
'I went from being unable to read to getting my Level 1 literacy in six months....if I wanted to be a Marine I had to do it'
'The way we did English and maths as part of our Apprenticeship, you just didn't know you were doing it. You got back from Ops and the teacher said, you have just done this and this, and you thought, I hadn't even realised I was learning anything!'
At a NIACE event to launch Armed Forces Basic Skills Longitudinal Study (a study of the impact of literacy and numeracy learning in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force), I had the pleasure of interviewing three young Service personnel, in front of an audience of top brass from the Armed Forces, representatives of large employers, two Ministers and NIACE’s Patron - HRH The Princess Royal. They rose to the occasion magnificently!
Each of the three, Gemma, Sam and Aaron, had just completed or were completing an Apprenticeship in one of the Services. Their military and specialist trade training together with their on-job training and experience form an integral part of their Apprenticeship programmes.
What they made clear was that by relating the literacy and numeracy lessons directly to their immediate military training and jobs, their learning was made relevant and purposeful. They were all highly motivated to progress and to succeed. This underlined the longitudinal study findings which we had published.
Gemma, an RAF steward, learnt about VAT calculations, using calculators to draw up and check Mess bills, and crafting her e-mails for staff of differing ranks.
'You need to know how to address and talk to different ranks, and those from other Services. You need to know how to address civilians. How to take orders and give orders, how to say things simply, and in difficult situations.'
Sam, an Army cook, learnt the maths needed to scale up recipes for 80 people, often with only one oven available and whilst deployed in Afghanistan, was expected to calculate and re-adjust menu requirements when food supplies to his isolated base on the frontline were disrupted by operations.
'I hated school and was hopeless at maths and English. When I heard I was going to have to start again, I thought....it's going to be like school, everyone will know I'm thick. But it wasn't, it was about getting a qualification and doing my job better'.
Aaron, a trainee Royal Marine, told us that he was illiterate, had never read a book and ‘wagged off’ school. Now in the Marines, he told us how he had gone from that position to gaining Level 2 Maths and a Level 1 English in just six months...he needed them to be a good Marine.
'I had never, ever read a book. I said to my mum, guess what I have just done? I have just read my first book! She was amazed.’
Sam had barely finished his Apprenticeship in catering when he was posted to Afghanistan.
On return from R&R (Rest and Recuperation - a short period of leave during an operational deployment – about 6 months in current Afghanistan operations) he was told he was going to Zarawar, on the frontline.
'I said - who is going to run the kitchen with me? The CO said no one. ‘You're doing it on your own, son!’ So I found myself running a kitchen for 80 soldiers, cooking three meals a day, under fire, in between going on stags. That's when I really learnt how important my numeracy learning had been......adding up rations, doing multiples for supplies, working out recipes, making sure I had enough food for all those people. If you don't have enough food, with enough variety, there is trouble!'
All of the apprentices talked about the importance of improving their speaking and listening skills, in order to be able to do their job more effectively, and how the assessment and teaching of these skills was an integral and often unnoticed part of their training.
These young people are often on duty all the time, working at their job almost 24/7. The Apprenticeships are intensive, high quality, focused and very definitely work-related. What shone through was how motivated these young people were......motivated to learn, to succeed and to be promoted; and how clearly they were aware that these skills could make a real difference to how they do their jobs and to their career prospects.
Carol Taylor, Director of development and research, NIACE
*Stags are shifts on duty. In the case here, on duty in an observation post of a Forward Operating Base (isolated base on or beyond the front line) in Afghanistan, watching for insurgents, firing or returning fire