The Army has brought in bestselling novelist and former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier Andy McNab to kick-start a new scheme designed to help soldiers to develop their literacy and numeracy skills.
This comes as recent Government figures show that 15 per cent (5.1 million) of the working age population in England are at or below the literacy level expected of an 11-year-old.
The scheme, which is known as the ‘Six Book Challenge’, will be trialled in the North of England, Germany and Cyprus. If successful, it will be opened up to the wider Army.
Andy, who rose to fame after giving an account of his experiences during the First Gulf War in his book ‘Bravo Two Zero’, introduced the reading initiative to soldiers at Catterick’s Infantry Training Centre during a talk to a mixed audience in the garrison library.
Lieutenant Colonel Jane Hunter, Commander Educational and Training Services, said:
The Army is strongly committed to improving the levels of literacy and numeracy among soldiers.
It not only offers them better job prospects after they have left the Service, but also enables the soldiers to do their jobs, assimilate training, and support them as the equipment they use gets increasingly more technical.
Those that take up the Six Book Challenge - run by independent charity the Reading Agency - receive incentives along the way; a certificate signed by Andy, plus a chance to enter a national prize draw after reading six books of their choice and completing a reading diary.
With several non-fiction books, a series of thrillers and more than 10 million books sold in the UK alone, Andy was chosen as the Six Book Challenge’s 2013 ambassador because of his own struggles with literacy as a wayward teenager.
Andy, who also called in at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate to speak to Junior Soldiers about the scheme, said:
I’m a perfect example of how reading can change your life.
I had the reading age of an 11-year-old when I was 17 and I only became a confident reader when I joined the Army. But once I started I couldn’t stop - and that’s what the Six Book Challenge is all about.
Admitting to the young soldiers that he only joined the Army as a 16-year-old in 1976 to get out of a juvenile detention centre, Andy said:
For the first three months I didn’t like Army life.
Then, one day, we were marched up to the Army Education Centre and into a classroom. I found myself looking at what appeared to me to be the oldest man in the world, although he was only about 42 years old. He’d joined as a soldier, got promoted, and ended up being commissioned as an officer.
At one stage, the captain walked up to the window, looked out, pointed at the perimeter fence and said to the class ‘everyone out there thinks you’re thick, but you are not. You’re just not educated. From today everything changes’.
A week later I read my first book - one from a children’s series called ‘Janet and John’. The feeling of being able to do that was fantastic. Knowledge gives you power, but you do it on your own terms.
I later found out that this same captain had had a reading age of just eight when he joined the Army, but education had given him a choice of what he wanted to do.
In 1984, Andy joined 22 SAS Regiment. He recalled:
I discovered that the Education Centre at Hereford was even bigger. That’s because one of the basics of Special Forces is mathematics. It’s how you calculate distance, trajectory and so on.
Andy, who is fluent in Swahili and Spanish, explained:
You also have to know about grammar because that’s how you learn languages.
The more you learn, the more you want to learn. It becomes infectious. If I can do it, anyone can.
Afterwards, Catterick Garrison Commander, Colonel Nick Millen, told the soldiers:
Once you get to the point where you are reading not just to inform you, but getting pleasure out of it, you will get more out of life in general.
Take every opportunity you can and try to be an ambassador for reading yourself. When you have finished a book don’t just put it back on the shelf - pass it on to your friends.
The Reading Agency’s adult literacy specialist Genevieve Clarke commented:
We are delighted that we have the Army’s support for the Six Book Challenge - especially as we have Andy McNab on board.
He knows what it’s like to struggle with reading and can talk about how he has turned that round. The Six Book Challenge is a very simple scheme and yet its impact can be enormous.