Dressed in army fatigues, the faded blue tip of a tattoo peeping out from his neatly rolled-up shirtsleeves, Sgt Terry Marshall sits at a table in a school hall waiting for his first pupil. He is one of 10 local employers who have been invited in to give the children a mock interview to improve their techniques.
The Army has not had a good week. Plaid Cymru has accused it of targeting schools in poorer areas in the wake of the war in Iraq. The party claimed that figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that most deprived schools were visited about 50 per cent more often than the less deprived. Assembly member Leanne Wood went as far as calling for the Welsh Assembly to ban Army recruitment initiatives from schools. The Army didn't recruit in schools, it said, but sought to raise awareness.
It makes visits on a specific, invitation-only basis, such as the exercise today. Other activities on offer include cookery classes, football and rugby coaching, music workshops with an Army band, practical engineering sessions, personal development courses and Army work experience. The aim, though, is clear - to raise interest in the Army and its careers.
Ian Kellie, headteacher of Sir Thomas Rich's School in Gloucester, where the mock interviews are being held, has no qualms about the Army coming in. "Out of a year group of 110, three or four pupils would be seriously thinking of joining. The Army is a valid career. I'm perfectly happy that youngsters are prepared to consider serving their country. I have no concerns," he says.
Here in Gloucestershire the Army visits every senior school. Sir Thomas Rich's, a boys' selective grammar that admits girls in the sixth form, is not in the least deprived. It was ranked 23rd out of about 3,500 state schools for its A-level results last year. About two-thirds of pupils achieved A or A* in their GCSEs, and most go to university.
In the school hall, the boys are sent to a table on an ad hoc basis. Those sent to Sgt Marshall, a careers adviser with the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry, won't necessarily have any interest in signing up anyone. Aged 36, he has been in the Army since he was 17. One by one, the boys in their neat blue blazers and artfully distressed hair sit opposite Sgt Marshall, whose own locks have been shorn down to a no-nonsense No 1. He tells them he's not here to recruit them and then asks about their interests. They have a friendly chat about their career ambitions, and he then comments on their mock job application form.
Chris Goodwin, 16, hopes to become a criminal barrister. What would put him off joining the Army? "The whole danger aspect and how you could actually die," he admits. "I think my mum would be quite worried if I wanted to join. At a guess, I think a soldier would earn about £20,000. A barrister would earn probably more, and salary would matter to me. One of my ambitions it to be quite wealthy and have nice things."
Ben Ruxton, 16, tells Sgt Marshall he doesn't know what he wants to be. He plays rugby, cricket and five-a-side football and would quite like to do something sports-related. "I think the whole discipline thing would put me off joining the Army," he says. "I am disciplined, but I don't know whether I would want to go that far. The thought of dying would put me off. You'd also be away for quite a bit.
"But I think it's a very respectable job. There's a lot of bravery and honour involved. I would feel proud being a soldier if I did decide to join up. I think the British Army is doing well [in Iraq]. I'm proud of them. The mortality rate is quite low. I think the amount of destruction to people and property could have been worse."
Daniel Bridges, 16, has no qualms about dying for his country, and would relish a career in either the Armed Forces or the police. "I'm quite interested in the Army, but my mum's a bit unsure," he says. "I like to be in control and I think the Army would offer me a chance at leadership and skills that I could use in civilian life if I left. I wouldn't be scared of going into a battle zone if I'd had the correct training, and I believe Sandhurst would prepare me for that.
"Death doesn't occur to me when I think about the Army. Injury doesn't bother me, either, to be honest. If I'm trained to do my job, medics within the army are trained to do theirs, so I have confidence in them. The salary isn't too bad. Risking your life for £30,000 doesn't sound a lot, but there's the experience that the Army can offer me to consider.
"I think the British Army is doing a pretty good job, especially in Iraq. To expect to have no deaths when you go into battle is ridiculous. Without a doubt I would be proud to be a soldier. To be able to come home and say that you've done your bit, you're protecting your country and you're also protecting the lives of others in other countries, and you can help in disaster zones. That's something to be proud of."
Hamza Kadodia, 16, doesn't know what he wants to do in the future, perhaps something to do with art and design. The Army holds not the slightest appeal. "It would be hard work and I'm not really interested," he says. "You wake up early, then there's all the activities like running. You have to carry everything on your back all the time. I would rather get a degree and then get a job. I wouldn't want to risk my life either. You have to join at 17 or 18. I'd rather have a social life with my friends.
"I think it's a good career, though. It shows bravery and that's a big achievement in life. I don't think my mum would be too happy if I joined."
Nathan Young, 15, shakes Sgt Marshall politely by the hand and informs him that he wishes to become an actor. The soldier is full of admiration. Not only does Nathan devote his Sundays to helping the disabled, he's also the first pupil to have made the top button of his shirt is done up.
"The Army doesn't appeal," Nathan admits afterwards. "Life as a soldier would probably be very challenging and rewarding. But there are some feelings of contempt against the Army around. The hours might not be good and going away for months at a time can't be easy. As for risking my life for my country I don't see any point in going to another country to get killed. I suppose soldiers do a good job. It's just not always seen to be that way."
Nor will Matthew Hopton, 16, join the Army. He has other interests: he has already set up his own company designing bespoke software. "I wouldn't consider putting my life on the line for my country. I don't feel I've done enough at the moment. The Army is very good at what it does. But I think the war in Iraq has gone a bit too far now. To start with, I supported it. If I told my mother I wanted to join up, I think she would try to put me off. I don't think she could bear to lose me if I died or if I was away from home for a long time."
Blake Franklin, 15, is given a mock interview by another employer, but comes to speak to Sgt Marshall afterwards. He can think of nothing better than a career as an officer.
"I want to make a difference. The money doesn't attract me, it's the lifestyle: getting to travel a lot and the opportunity to learn more languages and skills and meet more people. I would be happy to die for my country. It's something I've discussed with my parents. I've got a passion for the country and want to be the best at what I do, and to be the best you have to take risks and that's one of them.
"If I got injured I'd go to hospital and get patched up. You take the risk to improve yourself. When I watch the situation in Iraq I think it's getting quite out of hand, though we're only there as a peacekeeping force. If we pull out now it may undo the good work that we've done. It was a lot worse than it is now.
"If I got in I would be over the moon and feel proud of myself. I feel proud of the Army, particularly when they capture people like Saddam Hussein. However, when you see hooligans beat people up it doesn't make me feel proud. But they're a small minority. I'm patriotic because my country has given me a lot. It's paid for my health: since I was 11 weeks to when I was 14 I was in and out of hospital. I've been given so much support, it's the least I could do."
The roll call: Recruitment is up - even at £2.45 an hour
* Recruitment of soldiers rose last year by 9.2 per cent, with 11,460 soldiers enlisted. Yet the Army still missed its target by 1,252.
* The Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, Royal Signals and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers exceeded their annual targets.
* Figures refer to initial recruitment, not additions to trained strength: a number leave during training.
* Some 13,730 trained or training soldiers left the Army last year; 3,660 of them were recruits.
* Figures for 2005-6 show that 133,823 young people "expressed an interest" in joining the Army, up 58 per cent on the year before.
* The Army's advertising outlay nearly doubled to £25.3m.The recent boost in interest has been attributed to advertising, particularly a campaign featuring an expedition to Everest.
* The MoD spent £1.5m making a 30-second Army recruitment advert in South America. It was shown on television this year.
* Despite increases, the Armed Forces are still 5,000 below strength, according to the National Audit Office.
* The average salary of a newly qualified soldier is £14,300 before tax. In a combat zone, being on duty for a minimum of 16 hours gives the troops an hourly rate of £2.45. There is also a longer service separation allowance of about £6 a day, but this only applies to those who have served at least 12 months away from home. The national minimum wage is £5.35 an hour at age 22.Reuse content