'Soldiers will emerge from service with a disposition for learning'

A message from Martin Doel at the Association of Colleges
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The Independent Online

The Government's recent announcement of new support for the armed forces and their families included an increase in compensation and priority access to social housing for injured personnel as well as a valuable education entitlement – troops with at least six years of service will qualify for free college or university education.

The measures, contained in the summer's Armed Forces Command Paper, mean that Government will pay the tuition fees for army staff taking GCSEs, A-levels, degrees or other courses. (These benefits are in addition to new army bursaries, which will give young people £1,000 a year to study at college, with an additional £1,000 if they complete basic military training.)

At the moment, those serving in the armed forces may have tuition fees fully or partially paid for some courses, and the incentives are meant for retaining personnel. The new package can also be taken after they have left service.

As the former director of training and education at the Ministry of Defence, I have a personal interest in this story – not least because I was part of the team working on the Command Paper. As a citizen I am pleased to see this project reach fruition; it recognises the debt that the nation owes to those who put their lives on the line on our behalf. And from the point of view of the head of the Association of Colleges, there's a third reason to celebrate. Colleges are very well placed to respond to the extra demand that the Command Paper is likely to stimulate. The range of education that they provide, from basic skills courses to degrees, makes them ideal training partners. Colleges across the country, from Greenwich to Gloucester and Newcastle to north-west Kent, already provide pre-entry public services courses for the armed services and others supply post-entry training directly to the MoD.

There's more than one mutual benefit available from a strengthened relationship between colleges and our service personnel. There is a wealth of experience and skills among armed forces instructors, all of whom will hold a certificate in teaching in the lifelong learning sector; they will represent an ideal talent pool for the further education lecturers of the future.

Of course, the skills developed in some posts – such as logistics, vehicle technicians and electrical engineers – are more immediately transferable to civilian life and the job market than others, such as armaments, bomb disposal and photographic interpretation. But all service personnel will have developed generic skills that will be relevant to employers.

Perhaps the most important of these, and one which is reinforced by the Command Paper, is that they will have come from a learning organisation and will be aiming to be lifelong learners. They will emerge from their service with a disposition towards learning and a desire to build on the skills they have learnt in post.

Whatever the rank or former service, colleges are well placed to respond to meet the needs of these talented, able and motivated people.

The author is chief executive of the Association of Colleges