Gav Topley is drawing on his personal and professional experiences to lead ground-breaking research which could inform education and youth justice policy on the recruitment of under-18s into the UK armed forces.

Having completed an undergraduate degree in media and communications at BU, Gav has gone on to achieve a master’s in interdisciplinary childhood studies at Leeds and is now embarking on his PhD at St John’s College, Cambridge. He reflects that his academic achievements are a far cry from his early years growing up in a former mining town where none of his family members or peers had attended university.

He reflects: “It wasn’t that I had counted myself out of going to university; it was more that it never occurred to me as an option. Growing up, I didn’t have examples of people who had studied at that level around me and so, after finishing school at 16, I began working. It wasn’t until I joined the army and began travelling and meeting new people from different walks of life, that I saw university as a possibility. I hadn’t completed any A-levels, so I couldn’t enrol in the traditional way. However, after attending an open day at Bournemouth and talking to the course leader, I was able to gain entry and it proved to be the beginning of a whole new path.”

Gav’s experience in the army, together with time spent working with young people in education, social care and youth justice has given him a special insight which is now informing his research. The UK is the only country in Europe which recruits below the age of 18 and this practice has been criticised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Gav’s research is looking at the impact army enrolment can make on outcomes for those from working class backgrounds, while raising awareness of the views of the young people at the centre of the debate.

He said: “I have seen the realities of young men who end up in a negative spiral because of a lack of life chances and opportunities. Many of those who end up in the criminal justice system, do so because of a lack of family stability and financial security. At the same time, I have seen how the armed forces can be a critical turning point in providing structure, a solid support network and a place to develop professional skills. There is very little research and knowledge about the children’s perspectives on this issue, and a lack of understanding of the potential impact of increasing the age of recruitment in the armed forces. I feel passionately that my research needs to address these gaps and provide those in positions of power with the evidence to make informed decisions.”

Alongside his research, Gav is making the most of the opportunities of studying at one of the world’s most prestigious colleges to bring key influencers together. Having recently launched an online support network – Lad’s Advice – on Facebook to provide more than 4,500 young men with an outlet to share personal struggles, seek support and gain access to services, he is planning an event at St John’s to raise awareness and funds. The event will bring together young people, leaders in the armed forces and academics to explore how agencies can work together to better support those struggling with mental health issues. It will also raise money for Suicide Prevention Charity, Papyrus.

Gav has also launched a podcast ‘Lads Advice Encounters’ in which he talks to a range of personalities about their lives and experiences.