Obviously it sounds like you’ve tried lots of stuff already, so some of this may or may not work - and some of it might sound like sucking eggs, but here we go. Some of it will also be blunt, I can’t help that - it’s just the way it is.
Hopefully there will be a few useful threads in this you can explore/exploit… shout if you want me to expand on any…
To me, it sounds like you’ve exceeded your natural capacity and critical mass! Sqn’s go in ups and downs numbers wise all the time. There are natural peaks and troughs throughout the year and in 3/5 year intervals. It all depends on a number of factors. It sounds like you’re at a cadet numbers peak - but a staffing low. Compound that with your building capacity and things look bleak!
I’m a firm believer that all squadrons have an optimum headcount - the critical mass - this is normally a natural balance point given staffing/cadets/building/resources. Whilst RAFAC want the Corps to grow to a random number of the next X years, the fact is that some squadrons will never be able to manage that because of these limitations. So ignore any pressures that come from on high about recruitment - the simple fact is this, as your squadron currently stands, unless you can develop an engaging, relevant and inspiring training program, these cadets are going to have a shorter than normal cadet life expectancy. Worry not if this happens - it’s not your fault, this is what often happens when “peaks” in cadet numbers come before capacity elsewhere!
Where sqn resource capacity is outstripped by cadet numbers, cadets will find their access to parade night stuff, weekend events and a whole host of other things limited - purely by the fact they are a small fish in a bigger pond. Even simple things like differentiation in a classroom/learning environment means that their needs for learning may not be met by a CFAV who’s done a 2 day MOI course, but doesn’t have access to ongoing CPD and is teaching an unfamiliar subject.
As TO you have as much of a responsibility to staff development as cadet development. Check in with your staff and see if there’s areas they DO want to specialise in. It’s not going to fix the squadron in the next 4-6 months, but it’ll stop this happening again in the future.
Also – and you’ve probably already done so – speak to the Boss, let them know you’re struggling and make staffing their priority for the next 3-6 months. Get them to do some leg work around it. Ensure they are raising it with the CivCom and get them onboard with supporting the squadron’s efforts to recruit staff – particularly as it might need some cash to advertise/recruit. Build that Sqn Alumni and tap into ex-cadet network via Facebook. It could help build your staff numbers and reduce the pressure on you/existing staff.
With 20 cadets in your recruit flight, I’m guessing you’ve had a big intake! Well done! Now pause recruitment!!! Setup a waiting list - if you try and recruit in the next 3 months your problems will spiral exponentially! Running a waiting list is no bad thing. Yes, SOME potential recruits will walk and not come back - but there’s also evidence that waiting lists develop a false demand! Also, you need time to address the issues you’ve already got. And a waiting list will definitely help! I’m guessing once we get lighter evenings, things will be easier and you’ll have access to some outside space? Brilliant. Recruit then - but not before!
Your “30 mixed cadets”
I wouldn’t focus too much on your 30 mixed cadets – several times you mentioned that it’s this group you want to focus on. Don’t. Include your NCOs and senior cadets with the whole cohort unless there’s something very specific you want them to focus on. Isolating them as a separate group is increasing your workload and decreasing your resource. It’ll also give your group of 30 some mentoring and support – people to look up to and work alongside. They’ll learn a lot from just being around them – rather than being isolated from them.
You can still offer your “Top 10” something – there will be evenings when they naturally gravitate towards something else – but for now, and to help with the hole you’re in, I’d focus on the many, not the few.
There are ways and means to help address the “Squadron is too big” and “I don’t feel loved” thing (which often happens when operating above critical mass). And the quick fix is to build a really strong flight system. It might need some investment in Flight Commanders and some leadership from you to develop the system - but it’s well worth doing. (I appreciate, you may already have this - and it might be really strong - but could it be strengthened further?).
Could your two smaller classrooms be turned into “flight rooms” - giving them some ownership of them? Could you trust your Flight Commanders to run their own sessions in these rooms with minimum staff oversight? It could be a Bull night dedicated to improving uniform scores/inspections. It could be a round robin of small activities run by JNCOs to help work on certain aspects of leadership/teamwork etc. Set them the task of finding an engaging activity which they could run for 1 evening per month to address the needs of their Flight.
This could also be used and developed to run dedicated inter flight competitions – ideally run and delivered by your Senior NCO – but could equally be run by a member of Wg staff or a neighbouring sqn staff member for a night. Examples could be Sports, AT, Fieldcraft Skills, Observation exercises, Drill, Field Cooking, leadership tasks, anything which could be tweaked to offer an element of measurement or competition could be a goer for this. Again, another night a month has been taken up – with very little staff input.
Ensure your “10 senior cadets” are also involved. Get them to mentor and support the JNCOs/SNCOs and start nurturing their leadership skills and qualities as well. 2 x solid flights (with sub-flights if you so desire) of 20 cadets could really enhance a squadron - and help take some pressure off you - as long as you’ve got solid flight commanders.
Sounds like your recruit training is sorted. Is it run by a staff member of SNCO? Ours historically is run by a Cadet SNCO - instructors dip in and out as required for specialist areas, but broadly speaking, we trust our NCOs to do a good job – and the product at the end of training suggests it’s working OK. This could potentially free up a staff member for a few nights per month.
Obviously I don’t know the structure of your NCO team – but how many MOI/QAIC cadets have you got? Can you utilise them to deliver training?
Regarding your classification training you should only need 3 classrooms anyway. Junior Cadets/First Class, Leading, then Senior/Master can be combined and deliver the same subjects to both on an annual rotation with 3 subjects per year. If you can harmonise the training so all working across the same six subjects, you’ll find your life easier and should stop everybody scatter gunning across lots of different subjects.
The downside of the current classification training is that you often need specialist to deliver and I’d say half of the subject aren’t “out of the box” – but some are! The Military Aircraft Systems stuff has been brilliantly rewritten and can be delivered well by somebody with little knowledge.
Alternatively, harass your Wg Training Team or Sector Commander for some support. They might be able to lend you a staff member for a month to deliver a specific subject for your cadets to help them through. Tapping up outside sources for this could really help you out.
You don’t need a series of specialist to do this – you just need a few people with a passing interest. We rebranded ours “Trade Training” a few years ago, and it really helped the cadets get away from the “projects” legacy, and made it feel a bit more formal (it was when the CAC got in a rant about Projects being all about gardening and model making).
Utilise your “top 10” for this. Take them aside and get them to work up 5 viable trade training subjects which they themselves (individually or in pairs) could run and deliver to 4-10 cadets each. It doesn’t have to be staff lead. As you’ve already identified with band, they already have skills “outside” of cadets which they can bring to the table. I’ve seen cadets studying A level media who’ve delivered a reasonable social media course, others who do graphic design run an excellent trade training course developing posters for the rest of the squadron, refreshing training posters, door signs and loads of additional stuff for the squadron. A few years back we had some geeky cadets fiddling with Raspberry Pis. Quite a few options available which might not need 100% staff commitment. Oversight, yes, undoubtedly, but not necessarily 100% delivery.
You could also look at long term competitions over a few nights. For example, we run a public speaking competition. We run a “public speaking lesson” to give them all the skills and insight into how to do it – as well as tips on how to deal with nerves. They sign up to give a 10minute lecture on a subject of their choice 1 month in advance of the start of the competition. They then have a month to sort it out. Staff and NCOs mark their efforts and run a debrief afterwards to try and outline strengths and areas for development, the idea being that cadets will take away a valuable skill from the activity. We then have an annual award for public speaking at our awards evening – but this could equally be done as a flight activity.
With the number of cadets you have, I’d look at running this as a flight based activity. So they are only speaking to a smaller number of cadets (it can be quite intimidating), but also you’ll be able to get through them all a bit quicker (if you wanted).
Similar activities can be done around debating or Role/rank swaps.
You’ve named a few areas you’re looking at – so here’s some others to consider…
Links with local Armed Forces Charities. RBL, RAFA, SSAFA, Blesma, Combat Stress, Blind Veterans UK – there are LOTS of options available, some of which may be willing to attend for the evening as an guest presenter and do an engaging activity with the cadets.
How are your relationships with your local SCC or ACF? Could they spare an instructor to run an evening to run an intro into what they do? Or support a specific activity? The SCC love their semaphore and knots. The ACF are generally great at delivering FC stuff – and over and above even our new “inhouse” stuff. Even bringing in a set of webbing and delivering that lesson could be useful!
Likewise, have you tapped up your local Councillor? Neighbourhood Watch? Police Crime Commissioner? High Sherriff? Sports Trust? Cotswolds/Go Outdoors? All could visit to deliver a session – and offer some “community engagement”.
Have you a local aerospace group/astronomy group/history group/mountaineering club? Any of the above could be tapped up as an additional support source. Often fostering these sorts of links can be beneficial to both parties. We had a great rapport with our local Aeromodelling Club for a few years (until a change in personnel at their end!) – whereby we supported their model show in exchange for some support in running a few aeromodelling sessions with our cadets. We had a similar arrangement with a BMFA club who came along with a shed load of RC aircraft and did a really engaging demo – then invited us to a few sessions so the cadets could experience what Model Flying was like.
We’re currently working with your local RBL and will be visiting their centre for a parade evening a month. They are putting on talks and competitions for us. Could yours do something similar?
Ask around your ex-cadet network. Are any of them currently serving in the Armed Forces? Or have interesting jobs they like to talk about? Get them in for a night.
How much sector support are you getting? I’ve already said above about reaching out to your neighbouring squadrons. But how viable is this? Do you already have relationships with them – is it something you could foster/nurture for the future? If so, is there something you could offer them in return? Nobody wants to parade 3 or 4 nights per week – but for the same of doing it 1 week a month, could your squadron benefit from a reciprocal arrangement?
Are you Wg AT team willing to visit you and run an evening to outline all the different AT activities they could do in the ATC? Or even the recent changes within MLT, BC, RYA and British Cycling? What about your Wg Shooting team? Wg First Aid Team? Wg Radio Comms team? Are there any JLs, QAICs, IACE in your Wg that could run an evening to let the cadets know about those opportunities – broadly speaking, they all love to talk at length about those things!
When did your WWO last visit – ask them to come and do a parade night on their role, responsibilities and conduct a drill audit – then debrief your NCOs accordingly with an action plan and ask them to revisit in 2 months time for a progress check. WWOs love this as it makes them feel valued and important and like somebody is actually actively seeking advice and guidance (haha!)
Cadets often don’t know what is available unless it’s explicitly sold to them – ideally by passionate specialists – and stuff like this can easily occupy them for a night! The real benefit of this is that it gives cadets something to work towards – it could see the cadets accessing more week run courses and give them the bug – aiding in retention and their long term development.
Do you have a Wg Training Team? Could they offer you support – either as a cluster of squadrons or your squadron alone? They often have loads of experience in this stuff and might have ideas specific to your local area you could utilise. They may also be able to offer your mentoring/ongoing support if you wanted.
One area I’ve considered (although not yet tried!) is dabbling with standdowns for certain levels/classifications/areas. The idea came from a recent conversation with a Outreach team from the Army Reserve who’ll only attend if we can guarantee a certain number of 16+ aged cadets on a particular night. We alone couldn’t do this. So we’d need to draw in cadets from neighbouring squadrons – but we couldn’t do this AND support a concurrent activity for the other cadets. So, I was wondering about standing down the under 16 cadets for an evening – shipping in 16+ cadets from neighbouring squadrons and getting the Army Reserve to run the evening for us.
In a similar vein, our IMechE branch hold brilliant workshops which are free to attend. But you need to be 16+. We can’t necessarily spare a staff member for it. But a neighbouring squadron with a minibus might be able to swing by and pickup your cadets to attend. Even if it’s not on your parade night, it still could be of interest and see the cadets continuing to reengage. They could then deliver a session on what they learned, network, or maybe even talk the presenter into delivering the session at your own squadron!
Because of the hole you are in, it could be worth floating out to your CivCom the option to buy in some activities. A night at a climbing wall will cost around £15 per head including an instructor for the night. Your Wg AT Team may be able to hook you up with an inhouse instructor to reduce this cost. Costs could be met – in part – by CivCom, or by the cadets themselves. It’ll depend on how flush with cash your cadets are – and how generous your CivCom feel.
Swimming and working towards Basic/Intermediate/Advanced Swimming proficiencies (£3 per head?). Booking a school gym or sports hall for either Sqn or Flight sports for an evening could be a useful activity. I think it was £40 or £50 for an evening last time I looked into it. This gives you the flexibility of NOT being on Sqn for a night, avoiding all the space problems – but still keeping the cadets engaged.
Could you do a bowling evening? A night at a Trampoline Park? Squadron social somewhere? Even a film night where you show them Reach for the Skies or Dambusters. It won’t please everybody – but not many cadets watch this stuff. Hell, we discovered at our last fundraiser that very few of our cadets had ever watched Blackadder (triggered by them simply not getting any of the staff jokes!) so we genuinely watched 3 episodes of Blackadder Goes Fourth one parade night (which also gave the staff a night off!).
Hopefully there’s something in there to give you an insight into how I’d tackle the hole – but something you’ve not tried!
Best of luck!