After the Deepcut tragedy, the Army is opening its doors to outside inspectors

In the three years since it was launched, the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) has not attracted a great deal of publicity. As far as column inches are concerned, it's the poor relation of Ofsted, its sister organisation responsible for inspecting schools. Outside of the adult education world, few have heard of the ALI.

In the three years since it was launched, the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) has not attracted a great deal of publicity. As far as column inches are concerned, it's the poor relation of Ofsted, its sister organisation responsible for inspecting schools. Outside of the adult education world, few have heard of the ALI.

However, that could be about to change. The ALI has been asked to take on a new task: the inspection of a large number of Ministry of Defence (MoD) bases - specifically, what are called initial training establishments. That may still sound rather dry, until it sinks in that this new responsibility was handed to ALI after the Surrey Police report into the deaths of four young soldiers at the Deepcut barracks.

The MoD response followed a long, and still unsuccessful, campaign by the families of the four soldiers for a public inquiry into the series of deaths, and damaging findings within the Surrey Police report. They found repeated examples of bullying of recruits at Deepcut, and a failure to learn lessons.

This is the controversial background to the awarding of the ALI's most sensitive commission in its short history. Until now, the Army, Navy and Air Force have, to put it bluntly, inspected themselves, in accordance with their own quality standards. From September, that will change. Outsiders will be wandering around barracks and parade grounds with clipboards, and their reports will go straight to ministers.

When he made the announcement, the Armed Forces Minister, Adam Ingram, said the ALI would be responsible for commenting on the care and welfare of young recruits, many away from home for the first time in their lives. And, with an eye to the Deepcut deaths, he pointedly added that the inspectors would be expected to report any bullying or harassment they found.

"This will enhance the transparency of our training and education, which will, for the first time, be benchmarked against national standards and good practice," Ingram said. "There will be no no-go areas on the bases."

The MoD have earmarked £23m to pay for the inspections and to fund any new practices that result from reports.

It is a hefty new piece of work for the ALI, and senior officers are well aware they are entering a metaphorical minefield, if not a real one. "This will be sensitive and difficult work," concedes Nicky Perry, the director of inspection at the ALI. "But we are excited by it, and it is a recognition of the authority and trust we have developed in the three years of our existence."

Although Perry is adamant that what the ALI is not charged with doing is carrying out a public inquiry into the deaths of the four Deepcut recruits, she concedes the work will be intimately related to the shortcomings identified by Surrey Police in their report. "What we will be doing is establishing what the military have done to put things right, and helping them to continue the work."

Every year, about 9,000 young people start military life at 55 training camps up and down the UK. Although the Navy and Air Force both have such residential training, the majority of recruits start life in uniform at Army establishments such as Deepcut.

It is here that the new recruits, most still in their teens, learn basic military skills. Their lives revolve around parade ground work, physical education, outdoor exercises and the personal care essentials, such as washing, ironing, sewing and polishing.

Discipline is, of course, strict, with the aim of helping the young people to learn to live together, build self-reliance and work as members of a team. This experience can be traumatic enough when the regime is fair and benign. However, if malign influences are allowed to take root anywhere, as was found in the Deepcut report, a recruit's life can verge on the unbearable.

The ALI's principal aim in the short-term will be to identify and root out any such tendencies to bullying and aggression. Their inspections will have two distinct phases. First, there will be a general survey of more than half the establishments, across all three services, to get a broad picture of what life is like for new recruits. This will focus mainly on care issues - the area which provoked the harshest criticism in the Surrey Police report. "We'll be looking at the whole picture of their lives," explains Perry. "This will include what they do at evenings and weekends as well as when they're on duty."

This survey will start in September and will lead to a report to be published next spring. There will be a core team of four or five inspectors and this will be augmented, when necessary, with experts who have skills that are relevant to a particular establishment, for example when an Army musical college is looked at.

The ALI is not new to inspecting residential training establishments for young people. The British Racing School is regularly looked at, together with several agricultural colleges and residential centres for disabled people.

Teams of inspectors routinely include people with experience in social services and children's homes, with expertise and sensitivity to situations of potential, or actual, abuse or negligence.

Neither is the ALI completely new to MoD establishments, as they already inspect training in them when it is paid for by the Learning and Skills Council. Examples here include NVQs and other qualifications, such as those resulting from a driving course.

The second phase, which will take several years to complete, will entail longer visits to individual establishment, with inspection focused on the educational elements of the training. This is similar to the ALI's routine work, inspecting further education colleges and work-based training.

All in all, senior managers at the ALI appear confident that their organisation will cope with the new task. "It is an important and valuable piece of work, but I am certain we are up to it," says Lesley Davies, the assistant director who will have day-to-day responsibility for the MoD work.

Davies adds: "We already work with MoD and Army education centres and also have experience working with the inspectors of police training.

"We have 147 full-time inspectors, many of whom are ex-military and ex-social services, and where we need additional expertise, we will be able to call on it."