It is a curious anomaly that 16-year-olds cannot drink alcohol, vote, or drive a car – but they can join the army.
Britain remains the only country in Europe to recruit 16-year-olds into its armed forces. This is despite recommendations from the United Nations committee on the rights of the child and the parliamentary joint committee that the minimum age for recruitment be raised to 18.
In 2007, the head of the army’s recruitment strategy, Colonel David Allfrey, spoke about the “new model” in raising awareness. “It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, ‘That looks great.’ From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.”
There can be little doubt that the thousands of annual visits to secondary schools and colleges made by the armed forces, together with the estimated £26m that the MoD spends each year on combined cadet force units, are designed to act as an enticement to a career in the services. As the learning resource package, sent in 2014 to every school in the UK by the Department for Education, noted, it is “always challenging and fun”.
The armed forces continue with their policy of targeting their school visits disproportionately to schools in deprived areas and children from low-income families, the Department of Education ignores the UN’s recommendations that some form of peace education should be part of the curriculum in UK state schools, and supports initiatives encouraging a military ethos.
“Every child can benefit from the values of a military ethos,” said Michael Gove, then education secretary, in 2012. The £45m spent on projects from the cadet expansion programme to the Troops to Teachers scheme, together with hopes for military sponsorship of academies and free schools, shows that the department is prepared to put its money where its mouth is.