Every day in Afghanistan unit education officers are travelling to forward operating bases and checkpoints to ensure that even troops in the remotest of locations don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn new skills.
To some this may seem a strange idea - but the reasoning is clear.
Soldiers deployed on an operational tour can be away from barracks for six months or more at a time, yet they are still expected to be qualified for promotion or up-to-date with their specific job when they return to the UK.
If they don’t have the right skills or qualifications then their career progression could grind to a halt.
By having education specialists who are not just teachers but also trained soldiers able to travel to front line locations, battalions deployed in Afghanistan are better able to ensure that their soldiers are well educated, appropriately trained and ready for promotion.
One such ‘schoolie’, as these officers are nicknamed, is Lieutenant Erik Smith, Education Officer for The Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 SCOTS).
Lt Smith explained the reasoning behind his deployment:
It is important that the soldiers have the opportunity to gain education whilst on tour.
If I didn’t get out to these locations to visit them, then many would be what we call ‘career-fouled’ and some would simply not promote to the next rank when they’re meant to.
Just because the lads are deployed for six months does not mean that their personal development stops. It is my job, and the job of my fellow education officers, to ensure that they are getting the training and qualifications that they need.
As well as offering promotional courses, unit education officers like Lt Smith also offer courses in numeracy and literacy. These give the soldiers, whether eligible for promotion or not, the chance to improve their core skills.
They also help them earn certificates for their achievements which will stand them in good stead both in their future Army careers and, eventually, after they leave the forces and are looking for work in the civilian world.
Lt Smith added:
The courses we offer the students in the Army are set at a level that experience and research tells us is suitable. They are also tailored to the soldiers in that most of the questions are about elements and topics with which they are familiar and to which they can relate.
Some units also have the benefit of education officers who can speak local languages and are able to teach the troops words and phrases to help them communicate with local people and the Afghan soldiers and policemen they work alongside.
Lieutenant Claire Westerman is Lt Smith’s opposite number in 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment. As a Dari speaker, she has appended her lesson programme with instruction in the language, something British troops find enormously useful when out on patrol.
Lt Westerman explained:
It stands to reason - if you’re trying to win hearts and minds in a community, it’s much easier to do so if you make the effort to at least greet the people in their own language, so for the lads to know even just a few words can make a real operational difference.
But Lt Westerman’s language skills also mean she has been able to involve the Afghan soldiers working alongside her British pupils.
After starting out by using spare time in her programme to teach English letters and numbers to the Afghan troops to help them read maps, now she is running joint lessons where the soldiers of both nationalities learn from each other.
Lt Westerman added:
We see it as a fantastic opportunity to involve the Afghan National Army soldiers in our day-to-day operations. It’s really progressing at a great pace which is fantastic to see. Some of the Afghans are now getting so good they even reckon they can follow the Royal Irish lads’ banter!
Now it’s got to the stage where I’ve even had a request from the British troops for me to organise a lesson for them in how to make traditional Afghan bread - which may not sound like it has direct operational benefits, but could be a perfect opportunity for the two armies to practise their new-found language skills! It’s all good fun, but at the heart of it is ensuring we’re more effective when we operate together.
But it’s not just the Afghans who enjoy lessons; many of the British soldiers are very happy to relive their schooldays, albeit in somewhat different surroundings, and conduct education in their downtime when not out on patrol.
Lance Corporal Jim Naquarasi, of B Company, 2 SCOTS, one of Lt Smith’s recent pupils, said:
Education is a good thing to do in the field. It helps to pass the time as well as provide us with qualifications that can help us in our careers. In my view it is definitely a good thing - and it certainly beats a few hours on guard duty!
For the education officers, life is busy and there is never usually much time spent in one place. Lt Westerman is often backwards and forwards between the Royal Irish Battle Group’s different bases in Nad ‘Ali and, for Lt Smith, because of the diverse locations of 2 SCOTS Battle Group members, it is necessary for him to stay on the move all over Helmand to ensure than no-one misses out.
It is much easier for me, as one person, to travel to the different locations than for the guys to come to me. It also gets me out and about and allows me to see more of the country than I would otherwise, which is no bad thing. Getting out like this allows me to broaden my own experience as well as the methods that I use, depending on what resources are available to me.
Unsurprisingly, the forward locations where the education officers ply their trade rarely have the benefit of anything resembling proper classrooms. Instead the schoolies must make the most of whatever they can find. Sometimes this may be a spare building or tent that is not being used for anything else or sometimes it can just simply be a spot in the shade.
Lt Smith continued:
There have been times when I’ve even had to teach from the back of an armoured vehicle! In terms of a classroom, obviously a building with some form of tables and chairs is the ideal scenario, but this is rarely available. Most of the time I use a tent in the shade - or somewhere warm in the winter months - as this is the best possible situation I can hope for.
Likewise, the resources will change depending on elements such as method of travel and space. I would use a blackboard, overhead projector or PowerPoint and other such resources if I could, but usually I am limited to whatever I can carry and little else.
You just have to make do with what you have.