On a stormy winter day, 38 schoolchildren gather at Fulwood Barracks in Preston. They are mainly Year 11 pupils - aged between 14 and 16 - and they have been bussed over from a poorly performing comprehensive in a deprived part of a nearby town for an encounter day with the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.
The four teachers who have come along with them seem apprehensive. Many of these kids, they say, can be unruly; others are quiet but don't perform well in class. Warrant Officer Nick Froehling, however, is young, friendly and easy going. Within minutes he has the children doing rifle drill, shifting model SA80s from shoulder to arm's length and back down to "at ease" - although Froehling doesn't say "At ease". He prefers the order "Chill".
During the day, the pupils learn how to use a climbing wall, negotiate an obstacle course and complete a one-mile run. At the end, they receive a presentation certificate signed by Lieutenant Colonel J Pitt, commander of regional recruiting in the north-west. "Congratulations on successfully completing the one-day Army Personal Development Course," it says. On the back there's a list of local recruiting offices, and it comes with a DVD, recruiting brochures and a glossy teen magazine called Camouflage.
By the time they leave Fulwood Barracks at least two pupils - Luke and Cara - have decided to become soldiers. Sixteen-year-old Cara is particularly keen. "They told us about the pay, and it's way better than all my cousins are getting," she says. "I didn't think I'd be fit enough, but the exercises today didn't seem that tough." Luke is less sure of his route. "I was thinking about going into combat at first," he says, "but my teacher suggested it'd be better to use it to get a trade." Luke is 14 years old.
An army that actively recruits 14-year-olds is something usually associated with some of the world's more troubled states. The truth is, however, that shorter gaps between tours of duty, concerns over equipment, resentment at the poor state of accommodation and rising military death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing a retention crisis in the British military. In 2006, 14,000 personnel left the army, with just over 12,000 recruited to replace them. This year's recruitment target - 8,500 soldiers - looks unlikely to be hit.
The manpower crisis is so bad that in the past six months general after general has broken the military code of silence to speak out about government policy and Tony Blair's "wars of choice". In October, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, warned that the army could "break" if British soldiers are kept too long in Iraq - "I want an army in five years' time and ten years' time. Don't let's break it on this one," he complained. In December, General Sir Mike Jackson, Dannatt's predecessor, said troops' lives were being put at risk by underfunding and "overstretch". In January, the Adjutant General criticised the poor quality of soldiers' housing, warning that the bond between soldiers and the nation was at risk. Figures from October showing that the army is short by more than 2,000 soldiers came as little surprise.
With troops pouring away, the pressure to find replacements is intensifying. The time-honoured pools of unemployed young men from Thames-side and Merseyside and Tyneside are becoming less and less keen on joining the armed forces. Employment levels are high, and there are plenty of options to work through before they turn to the colours.
"It's difficult," explains Warrant Officer Chris Jones, senior army recruiter in the north-west, whose Liverpool office used to reap a bountiful harvest for all three arms of the military. "You've got the Big Dig going on in Liverpool - all the building work for the City of Culture - and that means kids who might have thought about joining us can get £250 a week cash in hand. Nowadays, the government is paying kids £40 a week to stay at school until they're 18, which is proving a real problem as well."
Although the army refuses to publish figures on the social background of recruits, it is clear that the young, unskilled and unemployed are still at the core of its target demographic. Sitting at the army desk in Liverpool's glass-fronted careers office, a recruiting sergeant explains that half of the applicants who walk in off the street have difficulty filling in the form. Others try to fake their parent's signature giving permission to join. "There's a lot of kids come in because their home life is a mess," the sergeant says. "They want the army to give them a bit of discipline and a bit of support because their home life doesn't offer that." At the same time, a constant stream of stories about bullying at training camps such as Deepcut, bizarre Royal Marine initiation ceremonies and post-conflict problems suffered by veterans is hurting the appeal of a life in uniform. This may explain why last year's introduction of a US-style bounty scheme to entice combat troops into the force performed so badly. Infantry soldiers have been offered a £1,300 bonus if they encourage someone to enlist. The MoD admits the scheme has not had "an enormous response".
As a result, the army is throwing open its doors to people it wouldn't have considered five years ago. Last month, the maximum recruitment age was raised from 26 to 33, allowing older entrants to sign up. Meanwhile overseas recruitment, mostly in Commonwealth countries, has produced more than 6,000 soldiers, drawn from 54 nations. Coupled with the 3,000 Gurkhas, this means one in every ten soldiers is a foreign national.
The army would prefer to get its soldiers young and British, however, and in the past 18 months it has had a rethink of its entire recruitment campaign, turning the focus away from the school leaver and on to the schoolchild.
The head of the service's recruitment strategy is Colonel David Allfrey. He is the man with Britain's schoolchildren in his sights, and he has a plan to reach them. When he talks about recruitment, he uses the kind of up-to-the-minute marketing jargon that you would expect to hear from a management consultant.
"These days, our youngsters are incredibly discerning," Allfrey says. "They make decisions based on a much broader tapestry of information than was offered to any of us. We have to cut through branding clutter with real efficiency. Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, 'That looks great.' From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip."
The core of this policy involves ramping up the Camouflage youth information scheme. Introduced in 2000, the scheme is designed to "hold and develop the interest of those who have made contact with the army but are too young to join". Camouflage members, who start at 13, get the teen mag Camouflage mailed to them every quarter. It is packed with pictures of helicopters looping the loop and fashion shoots with cute kids from the Royal Military School of Music wearing army T-shirts and camo gear. They get books, a kitbag, access to a members-only website with military games, survival tips and screensavers. They also get Christmas cards from the recruiting officer and when they leave school there is an invitation to pop in to see Army Careers for a chat. Since the scheme started, it has processed 271,000 youngsters; 18 per cent of this year's army intake were originally Camouflage members.
Children usually sign up to the Camouflage scheme when the army goes into their school. The MoD now operates 17 schools presentation teams, which offer free citizenship workshops that teach media skills, international crisis role-play and the role of the military. Soldiers also conduct field cooking lessons in the classroom; for a school enterprise day, a team from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers might set a construction problem. To Chris Jones, these visits are gold dust. "We'll send caravans to paintballing sites, or motorcycle stunt teams to outdoor events, but it's always schools where we get the best response," he says.
The presence of recruitment teams in the classroom has caused understandable concern, as has the type of schools being visited. Late last year, Plaid Cymru used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain figures on school visits from the Army Recruitment Division for 2005-2006. The figures showed that schools in the most deprived areas of Wales were visited 50 per cent more often than those in affluent areas. Schoolchildren in Swansea received ten visits on average that year, while the wealthy Vale of Glamorgan had none at all. Plaid Cymru asked the Welsh Assembly to ban the army from schools, but the Assembly refused. A Welsh Assembly Government spokes woman said it was "up to individual schools to take decisions on career opportunities for their pupils and how those opportunities are offered".
"We don't do primary schools"
Allfrey refuses to talk about recruitment demographics. "I'm not sure those numbers exist and if they did I'm not sure I could give them to you." He will say that, as employment in the south-east is very good, areas such as the north-west or north-east are more productive. He also disputes Plaid Cymru's concerns, arguing that it's good having soldiers in schools to inspire youngsters and that these are "visits without prejudice". In other words, visiting run-down schools to talk to kids with poor prospects is a competitive business solution.
"We don't do primary schools," the colonel says. "It would be improper to hard-sell a military career at that point. We prefer outreach. Our recruiter will go and visit somebody who has expressed an interest - whether we've got an email address, an SMS or a home address - and follow it up in a sensible, unhurried fashion. That demands a very different skill set to just being a soldier. It demands that those people in recruitment have to become ever more professional at selling the army's offer. The army careers advisers who operate in schools are skilled salesmen."
At Warrant Officer Jones's Liverpool office, "outreach" is becoming a mantra. Liverpool's target for the year - 252 soldiers - looks unlikely and Jones is sending teams out to jobcentres, schools and further education colleges. For Allfrey, further education is a great untapped resource. The army plans to top government support for pupils staying at school by piloting a bursary scheme with further education colleges, under which teenagers will get money while doing their course and a success bonus when they finally join the army. In April this year, the scheme will become part of an entire overhaul of the army recruitment system, using interactive television, sponsored documentaries, ethnic-minority community workers, and even keep-fit websites, to channel people towards the territorial and mainstream armies.
It's a big push, with a lot of money behind it - although the exact amount hasn't been announced yet. If it fails, the army may have to adjust its standards again.
In 2005, the US military was regularly missing its recruitment targets. In 2006, it had to double the top enlistment bonuses for recruits from $20,000 to $40,000, loosen medical standards, forgive more minor criminal offences, raise the age limit for new recruits from 35 to 42, and accept more people who have not finished high school.
What changes will desperation force on the British army, whose ten-year recruitment strategy begins with a seven-year-old boy?
The names of the children have been changed
Army recruitment by numbers
£80m current budget for recruitment
2,000 shortfall in numbers of actual recruits against targets in October 2006
6.6% of recruits in 2006 were women
7.3% of current army personnel are of an ethnic minority
21 years the largest age-group among personnel
£12,000 starting salary of a new recruit
27 average age of British soldiers killed in Iraq in 2006
Research by Lucy Knight