At the Army's behest, psychologist Lew Hardy is turning centuries of tradition on its head. Paul Hill explains why
The deaths of four young people at Deepcut barracks tarnished for ever the popular image of the Army drill sergeant knocking raw recruits into shape. John Reid, the Defence Secretary, last weekend conceded that concern about the bullying of trainees was in part responsible for a serious fall in army recruitment and that a solution was being sought. That solution may already have arrived in the form of a bluff Yorkshire academic psychologist.
Lew Hardy's is a radical proposition. He wants to end the ethos that has underpinned the military's approach to training for generations.
For the past 15 months, he has worked to this end with the Army at the Infantry Training Centre Catterick as it turns teenagers into soldiers and peacekeepers ready to patrol the streets of Iraq or the villages of Afghanistan. His small team has closely observed the instructors and their effect on the attitude and performance of recruits. He observes that at the heart of the matter is a question about the purpose of basic training: is it to filter out the weakest recruits before they reach the front line? Hardy proposes another approach, one that comes straight out of the academy.
The Army's interest in Hardy, professor of health and human performance at the University of Wales, Bangor, stems from his work on the psychology of sporting performance. As one of the British Olympic Association's senior psychologists, he helped to transform attitudes among athletics coaches that led from the dismay of the Atlanta Games to triumph at Sydney.
On the back of a burgeoning reputation for getting results, Hardy was approached in 1999 to review the Royal Marines' Command Training Centre at Lympstone, near Exeter. At the time, 60 per cent of recruits were dropping out before the end of the 32-week course. "The problem for the Marines was sizeable," Hardy says. "As they lost men through retirement and completion of service, so the number of active marines was getting smaller.
"We concluded that the trainers' philosophy was: 'How do I make sure that no one who doesn't deserve to get through training gets through?'" Hardy says. "We recommended that the philosophy should be: 'How do I get as many people as I can up to the required standard?' It sounds like a trivial change, but in an organisation with the traditions of the military, it is difficult."
Hardy expected some scepticism. "An organisation that confronts major change will have people who are for it, people who are against and people who are sceptical about it," he says. "When I first started to work with the Marines, I had some reservations about how aligned our values would be."
But the Marines took his ideas on board. The results speak for themselves.
After gathering data, Hardy's team recommended that the instructors exhibit three "behaviours" to get the best out of their recruits: provide inspiration by talking positively about the future; get the new soldiers to work together; and recognise and praise good performance. Two years later, the pass rate for Royal Marine recruits had improved by 12 per cent.
This success prompted the Army Training and Recruitment Agency to commission a £125,000 two-year review of training at ITC Catterick, where a quarter of the infantry's recruits are handled. In the aftermath of Deepcut, it had been noted that Lympstone had been given an exemplary pass when its training was inspected. "I guess the infantry thought that the coaching approach was a good thing and would help with a lot of problems, including the accusations of bullying," Hardy says.
Furthermore, it emerged this week that the infantry is also having recruitment problems, being more than 1,800 recruits under its target strength.
Major Tim Cain, officer commanding training at Catterick, has championed Hardy's work and admits the change of ethos. "In the past, we relied more heavily on the carrot-and-stick approach," Cain says. "If a recruit did well, he would be rewarded, if not, he received some negative reinforcement."
But as a result of Hardy's input this has changed. "Now we are looking at the bigger picture, looking at the recruits' relationship with the staff and the instructor, and looking for the instructor to see himself as a leader," Cain says. "Our training has to be realistic, demanding mentally and physically, it has to be stressful. We're talking about young men of 18 or 19 who may well be facing a mob on the streets of Basra within a few weeks. But there's no reason training should be so hard that it selects people out." Tellingly, Cain notes that no one gets punished without understanding the reason why.
The duty of care on the Armed Forces - so often talked of in the light of the Deepcut deaths - is not to protect recruits from the worst but to prepare them for what Cain describes as the "harsh reality of operations".
Hardy does not deal with the instructors directly. His advisory team does that, backed by those at the top. So far, he says the results at Catterick have been mixed. Where his team has been able to concentrate its efforts, the impact has been impressive. Other regiments have yet to be focused on.
Cain talks of "lighting little fires" among the trainers in a bid to inspire some with Hardy's approach so they might lead the rest by example.
The aim, Hardy says, is not to turn the infantry into "what they might call a load of tree huggers". Punishment, stress, fear and exhaustion all play a part, he says. "For the public and for politicians, punishment has become a bit of a dirty word. But if you are trying to get people to perform at a very high level, in an automatic way, under very stressful circumstances, where the consequences of a mistake are dire - somebody dies - it's difficult to imagine a training situation where there aren't some pretty hefty punishments for mistakes."
Everyone agrees that training has to be demanding and stressful, he says.
"Some people, no matter how good the training, may not be able to achieve the required level. If they don't, it's in everyone's best interests they are removed. But it doesn't have to be humiliating and it doesn't have to break everyone."
Warrant officer Steve Higgins, chief instructor with the Army Physical Training Corps, says: "There are still trainers who say: 'In my day it worked - look at me.' But what about the people who didn't get through? Could they have made it, too? And could the rest have got through at a higher standard?"
Higgins is optimistic about the impact of Hardy's approach on tomorrow's recruits. "It's about understanding individuals' strengths and working with them to ensure they are the best soldiers they can be."