Learning on the frontline

The objectives of the Army’s Educational and Training Services have their parallels in Civvy Street. Brigadier Mark Filler explains his definitions of empowerment, self-sufficiency and learning for life

As you read this, two trucks are being loaded up in preparation to go to the British military base in Iraq. There is nothing unusual about that – given the Army’s deployment in the Gulf as part of Operation Telic. However, these vehicles aren’t laden with typical army supplies; instead, they are kitted out with a bank of the latest PCs, loaded with e-learning programmes and satellite linkage that allows access to everything from basic literacy courses to foundation degrees.

Having members of your organisation based in a far -flung corner of the globe is not – and cannot – be a barrier to learning when training and development is as vital to your operational effectiveness as it is to the British Army. The mobile Army Learning Centre (ALC) heading for Iraq is one of 115 online study facilities, which are designed to give every soldier and officer access to learning wherever they are serving, and is part of the Army’s commitment to lifelong learning and continuous development.

In the two years since the ALCs were set up (in conjunction with Learndirect), there have been 31,000 course registrations, with completion rates of 61 per cent.

ALCs form just one strand of the Army’s complex and wide-ranging training structure and strategy that has to cope with not only one of the most geographically dispersed workforces in the world (the British Army has 112,000 officers and soldiers and is currently deployed in more than 20 countries around the globe), but demands ranging from basic skills up to the specialist training needed to operate a multi-million pound missile launcher.

The Army’s equivalent of the training department is the Educational and Training Services (ETS) Branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC). And although some of its training challenges are unlike anything you’d find in civvy street, its overall aim is the same, says ETS director, Brigadier Mark Filler.

“We see this as being no different from commercial companies, we want a competitive advantage. They want to make profits, but we want to be successful in the mission and win the war.”

The straight-talking Brigadier, who was commissioned into the Royal Army Educational Corps (as it was known) in 1977 and spent his first three years of service with the Parachute Regiment, puts his department’s mission immediately into context: “At the end of it all, we want the empowered, thinking soldier – someone who can react and respond,” he says.


“The demands on soldiers today are far greater than they have ever been. We’ve moved away from the Cold War scenarios of huge formations working en masse. Now we have individual soldiers standing on street corners, having to think for themselves as opposed to having to be told what to do. We produce problem-solvers, managers and leaders, and this is why the British soldier has been so successful in recent operations.”

The Brigadier answers to the Adjutant General himself (currently Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin) his equivalent of a CEO and HR director rolled into one. His department comprises around 328 ETS officers who, if you are looking for parallels in civilian life, are the Army’s training professionals – providers and deliverers of education and training. They all hold a Postgraduate Certificate of Education, but also happen to be trained for combat. Many of them work out of the 36 Army Education Centres spread across the UK, Germany and Cyprus and others are based at the Army training colleges and regiments.

There are also 80 Army training specialists based up and down the country who are pedagogically and technically qualified to create courses from scratch to meet the Army’s highly specialised training needs when it comes to introducing new pieces of kit, such as a new weapons system. In addition, there are civilian tutors and training support staff working within ETS.

Many of the issues which Filler faces are the same as those for commercial companies such as technology, budgets, employer brand, resources and bottom-line impact (the latter measured in terms of operational effectiveness). And like any training department, they have a range of initiatives on the go at any one time – currently ranging from e-learning developmental work to the digitisation of the Army Library Service catalogue, comprising more than a quarter of a million titles.

The objectives of the Army’s Educational and Training Services have their parallels in Civvy Street. Brigadier Mark Filler explains his definitions of empowerment, self-sufficiency and learning for life to Sue Weekes


However, there are some fundamental approaches to training that sets the Army apart. Firstly, education and training is part of everyday life in the Army since almost every activity can be linked with professional or personal development in some way. And such is the team ethos that the task of carrying it out doesn’t begin and end with the ETS.

“Everyone must have buy-in when it comes to education and training,” comments Brigadier Filler. “It’s not just us [within ETS] who are involved in developing people, anybody in any position of authority wants to develop their subordinates.”

The other major area in which it differs is by taking a far more holistic approach to education and training for the individual than other organisations, with its ‘Whole Life Development’ concept.

This approach brings together three strands: professional development (ensuring recruits have the skills they need to do their job effectively), career management (which deals with the soldier’s progression through the ranks and from posting to posting) and personal development.

Whole Life Development

We look at the individual and assess any deficits they have, and look at what they need to bring them up to speed to do their job properly – which might entail some additional fitness training or improving their literacy,” says Filler, who explains that all new recruits are given a Personal Development Record to detail their education and training throughout their career.

The third strand – personal development – is the one that is perhaps harder to quantify and value. “This was thought of as rather obtuse because it wasn’t seen as relevant to operational efficiency, but it has a part to play,” says Filler. “For instance, if someone decides to learn a language, it should be recorded as it could be useful. Similarly, if someone is a triathlete, this contributes to the Army image and role.”

Opportunities for personal development abound in the Army, and can take the form of adventurous training (everything from abseiling to white-water rafting), sport in general, extra-curricular study (such as Open University degrees) and other activities, such as pastimes and hobbies. Episodes such as the Falklands conflict prove the value of such an approach, says Filler.

“The man who had the crucial knowledge about the waters was a Major from the Royal Marines who spent all his spare time sailing and exploring the local area while serving as the local commander during the 1970s,” he says.

Within the Whole Life Development cycle are a number of structured training programmes and learning initiatives that ETS has put in place. One of its most recent projects is the Command Leadership and Management (CLM) concept for soldiers (see box), based on the best leadership and management thinking available. It is designed to ensure that soldiers are properly prepared for the leadership and management challenges they meet as they rise through the ranks.

The Junior Officer Leadership Programme, meanwhile, marks another first by being a non-examinable development course with a far less didactic approach than previous Army teachings. It is interactive and based upon a non-threatening and reflective approach to learning.

“It’s all about enabling officers to challenge and test hypothesis and is based upon working through the cognitive domain of Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956),” explains Filler. “They start with a simple scenario on day one, which then builds up, and by Friday, all sorts of things are being thrown at them. The feedback from students so far has been extremely positive, and the reason we’re doing it is once again to develop that competitive edge.”

Projects on the go

Other projects and initiatives currently in progress include the pilot of a new online foundation business and management degree in conjunction with UKeU and Bournemouth and Leeds Metropolitan universities, and a partnership with the Chartered Management Institute, which enables soldiers to gain externally certified qualifications. Both of these are part of the Army’s bid to develop wider partnerships with professional institutions, awarding bodies and universities.

Accreditation of courses is seen as vital for the future of Army education and training, and also for individuals rejoining the civilian world (the responsibility for Army resettlement also resides with ETS).

Life after the Army

For a new recruit, day one of Army life is also the first day that they start preparing to leave the Armed Forces. This paradoxical statement underlines the organisation’s dedication to Whole Life Development, and acknowledges that the Army doesn’t necessarily offer a career for life. “It’s our duty to help recruits move on to a second career when they leave the Army, says the Brigadier.

“As a large national employer, we’re contributing to UK plc as much as Marks & Spencer or BP. We place 9,000 people back into the civilian world every year, and they go back better qualified and educated than they were when they arrived.”

Brigadier Mark Filler

2002 to present           Director of Educational and Training Services

1999                            Promoted to Brigadier, and took command of the Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC) Training Group and Winchester Garrison

1998                            Promoted to Colonel and ran the AGC Manning and Career Management Division

1978-1998                   Promoted to Captain. Promotion through the ranks to Colonel, with various positions in personnel and training

1977                            Commissioned into the Royal Army Educational Corps and spent his first three years of service with 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment

1976                            Graduated from Loughborough University. Also spent time working as a gaucho in Argentina

Training soldiers in HR best practice

Command Leadership and Management (CLM) is a new course introduced in January for all non-commissioned officers (NCOs). “The Army is known for its leadership in the field, but we were finding that this wasn’t transferring back to the barracks,” adds Colonel Chris Caswell, chief of staff of the Educational and Training Services (ETS) Branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps.

The course took three years to develop and was built from scratch with the best management and leadership thinking available. It is designed to give soldiers a toolkit of practices and procedures as they progress through the ranks from Lance Corporal to Warrant Officer Class 1 (WO1), the highest rank a soldier can reach. Content is mapped onto national standards including BTEC and NVQ and runs from GCSE right up to postgraduate level.

The course is delivered through a combination of education and training to prepare a soldier for promotion to the next rank. The Army aims to put 7,500 soldiers through modules of the course each year. Although it’s still early days as far as feedback is concerned, the Army ‘rumour service’ website has featured positive discussion about CLM at soldier level.

In effect, it is HR management training for the soldier, says Caswell, stressing that it is fairly ‘ground-breaking stuff’ for the Army.

“We’re very excited about it,” he says. “Modules in the course include change management and 360-degree appraisals – a radical concept for such a hierarchical organisation.”

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