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Army Education Officers teach Gurkhas in Helmand

Education is often referred to as ‘the three Rs’; reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (yes I know). But you can add at least one more R to that,…

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Captain Charlie Walsh (left) and Sergeant Basanta Rai snatch some spare time to catch up on their education

Captain Charlie Walsh (left) and Sergeant Basanta Rai snatch some spare time to catch up on their education [Picture: LA(Phot) Andy Laidlaw, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Education is often referred to as ‘the three Rs’; reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (yes I know). But you can add at least one more R to that, Rifles. Or, the Royal Gurkha Rifles to be more specific.

Famed for their dedication and training, the legendary soldiers from Nepal believe that training is not just about weapons drills and endless physical training, but bookwork too.

Yet for them, that does not necessarily mean being in the classroom. A Bergan as a makeshift desk or an improvised education centre in an ISO container will do just fine. And even when they are living in a patrol base in Nad ‘Ali they’re not tempted to use the excuse ‘sorry Miss, but a camel spider ate my homework’.

According to Captain Charlie Walsh, media officer and Unit Education Officer (UEO) for 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles:

The Gurkhas are very keen to develop their education, it’s a delight in fact to be their education officer.

The Army’s Educational and Training Services (part of the Adjutant General’s Corps) provides access to educational advice and support across the world and that includes for those on operations.

Every day in Afghanistan, UEOs (or ‘schoolies’ as the soldiers call them) travel to forward bases to ensure that even troops in the remotest of locations don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn new skills.

The role of the UEO is to promote the educational development of the troops, and encourage a thirst for learning. This includes basic life skills courses in literacy and numeracy level 1 and 2, the equivalent of a GCSE, but sometimes with the chance to progress as far as degree level.

Captain Walsh, as UEO attached to the Gurkhas, finds there is a particular and constant demand for the provision of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses.

Like other UEOs, Captain Walsh’s job is also to encourage troops to keep up with their progress through the necessary courses they need for promotion. This might include training in skills such as Defence Instructional Techniques, where pupils are taught how to deliver a lesson, such as weapons drills.

Soldiers learn about course content, how to engage with a class, and various learning styles:

It could be teaching leadership and current affairs at warrant officer level, like the effects of the SDSR [Strategic Defence and Security Review],” said Captain Walsh. “We can give advice about what training to take, and point soldiers in the right direction to put in a bit of effort to find out for themselves what’s on offer.

We are there to explain about the different levels of qualification and what learning credits people are entitled to and how to make use of them.

It’s probably fair to say that some UEOs have an easier time than others, even though, as Captain Walsh pointed out:

From day one of joining the Services we always say that’s when you start training for your second career after you leave the Armed Forces. So it’s important to explain why we should all keep developing, not just for promotion but for life too.

But you do sometimes come across the attitude from some junior and senior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers], ‘I’ve got this far, so why should I bother?’

Of course, back in the UK, there are plenty of enjoyable ways to burn up spare time other than picking up a course book. How many of us would find ourselves seeking out the way to the learning centre if we didn’t have to?

On deployment though, soldiers can find themselves with not much to do between duties, and there’s only so much time you can dedicate to ‘Op Massive’ (bulking up), so many do see it as a chance to develop the mind as well as the body.

So if you want to find the way to the education centre (even if it is just a portable building with a trestle table in it) you could do worse than follow a Gurkha:

In fact, just now as I was walking over here,” (here being a portable building inside Forward Operating Base Shawqat in Nad ‘Ali (South)), said Captain Walsh, who is based at Lashkar Gah but is here with her media officer hat on to set up an interview with a POLAD (Policy Advisor) for Defence Focus, “I was stopped by one of my guys who was asking me ‘when are you coming over to our patrol base to discuss our training?’

Maybe not every Unit Education Officer finds themselves pushing on such an open door, but they do like to walk their patch:

That’s one of the good things about my dual role, as media officer I do get out and about and it gives me a chance to go and talk to my guys who are further afield,” said Captain Walsh.

I was in Gereshk a few days ago hosting some media, and while I was there I was able to fit in a few basic skills lessons. I was there for four days and the Gurkhas sat ten literacy exams. When they weren’t patrolling they would work all the time doing practice papers getting ready to sit their exams.

But what about Captain Walsh’s own preparation for the future? Does she practise what she preaches?

My dual role as UEO and media officer fits together really well. Not only does it give me the chance to get out and see my guys and sort out their training - I’ve been running a basic skills course every week - but in the two months I’ve been out here I’ve met so many different people, like POLADS, and found out what they do.

As well as being interesting, and giving me a better sight of the big picture, it all helps with anecdotes for my lessons.

And yes, I am developing my own learning too. I’ve always wanted to teach, but I didn’t want to stay on after university to do my Postgraduate Certificate in Education [PGCE]. I tried office work, that wasn’t for me.

I love sport and at university I was keen on going on expeditions, so the Army seemed an obvious career fit. Now as a UEO I’ve taken my PGCE and I’ve just started a post grad diploma, so after the Army I’d like to teach.

When that time comes, with her Army experience, and that Gurkha spirit, she will no doubt be a class act.

This article is taken from the July 2011 edition of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

Published 13 July 2011