Growing up in an army family is ever-changing, challenging and often difficult to navigate, but it’s also character-building and can help develop a unique set of skills. So what is military life like for teenagers and young adults in 2021? Jill Misson reports…

There are pros and cons to all types of upbringings and, as summed up perfectly by a couple of the teens Army&You chatted to, one spent following the flag can certainly serve up a powerful cocktail of experiences and emotions.

“I feel proud that my parents serve, but it makes me feel different from everyone else,” explains Lucy (15). “I’m always worried I will have to leave everything behind but moving has taught me to be resilient.”

Euan (14) also talks of conflicting feelings: “I felt down when my dad had to leave for months on deployments but one of the best skills I’ve learned is the ability to make friends due to being posted every two years.”

The evidence of such contrasts is, however, more than just anecdotal.

The MOD’s decision to commission an independent review – led by Andrew Selous MP – that explored the impact of forces life on families shed more light on the matter.

Living in our shoes, published in 2020, made recommendations including providing better information to help children cope with parental absence and reducing the frequency of moves to improve educational stability. Researchers noted a problem with access to extracurricular activities due to long waiting lists which can increase social isolation.

Specialist support

All local authorities are encouraged to appoint a Service Pupils’ Champion. North Yorkshire already has two, providing workshops and one-to-one sessions. This year saw an increase in demand from secondary school pupils, Nickie Young explains: “COVID-19 impacted them significantly. Many had to deal with parents being away manning testing and vaccination stations. Some struggled with home learning with no release for their anxieties and coming back to school was difficult with wearing masks and being restricted to a bubble.”

In MOD schools overseas, Educational Psychology and Advisory Specialists also acknowledged the pressure of the pandemic. The team has run a recovery programme alongside their ‘Hearts and Minds’ initiative, promoting emotional wellbeing and positive mental health.

Funding from the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust has enabled Little Troopers to create a Secondary School Resource Hub (more on page 60 of the autumn edition of Army&you).

“These children cope with a lot of uncertainty and change, things that their civilian peers find hard to relate to,” says founder Louise Fetigan. “We think it’s really important that they feel recognised and included, and are given the opportunity to talk about military life.”

In Wales, SSCE Cymru employs Regional School Liaison Officers who work closely with schools to help them understand the experiences of their service children. After speaking to pupils, an online toolkit of resources was created for both teachers and parents.

Common bonds

At Weobley High School in Herefordshire, Emma Smith started a club for students from the local garrison. She says: “I’ve been surprised at how open and relaxed they seem with each other, even if they are from very different friendship groups. The old cliché about feeling part of the wider forces family really does seem to be true.”

Emma, who gave a presentation to staff to raise awareness, adds: “They were shocked to learn how many previous schools some of our students had been to and how they might face different challenges that could influence their behaviour and attitude.

“One girl remembers being told off for her handwriting simply because she had been taught a different way at her previous school, and this has made her anxious about getting things wrong ever since.”

The school is now using the Thriving Lives toolkit developed by the Service Children’s Progression Alliance (SCiP). Director Phil Dent believes families are often the one constant in service children’s lives: “If parents make strong relationships with schools as soon as they arrive, or even before, it can make a huge difference to the quality of support provided.”

The Moving Schools booklet from the Children’s Education Advisory Service (CEAS) suggests questions to ask a new school and the Pupil Passport allows children to record their thoughts.

Challenging changes

Navigating the service slopes: Ashleigh found returning from a posting in Canada hard to adjust to.

Transitions between schools can take some getting used to. Ashleigh (14) recently returned from Canada and found it hard settling back in at first.

She says: “The big difference was the pressure put on us by the teachers and I found it hard picking up the curriculum and having to think quickly about my GCSE options. Social pressure was a big shock for me too.”

Teenagers at boarding school also need to adjust to life back at home. AFF’s Overseas Manager Esther Thomas adds: “I was upset to hear my eldest declare that she hasn’t had any ‘real’ friends at her home location for years. Fortunately she has loads from school and they connect across the globe in the holidays via social media.”

On the right path

Some research has suggested that young people from armed forces families are less likely to go to university than their civilian peers, although the 2020 Selous report noted the lack of consistent data and cautioned against generalisations.

In an in-depth study by the University of Winchester, service children were not shown to underachieve up to GCSE level.

Nevertheless, universities and colleges are identifying service children in their widening participation programmes and applications to UCAS are flagged. Beka Avery, Project Manager at the education outreach programme, Pathways, says: “We spent time talking to local authorities, community engagement teams and colleagues who work with service children to understand the additional challenges they may face in making decisions about their future.”

Students with a serving parent have taken part in a study by Brunel University to share their experiences, including how unpredictability in their lives can impact their studies.

Skills Development Scotland has career advisers who work alongside young people from service families to help them reach their potential. Armed Forces Champion and veteran Alistair Ferrier explains: “It’s important to ensure they recognise their strengths like resilience and relationship building to help them with career choices – whether that’s college, university, an apprenticeship or work.”

A mountain to climb: Callum Jenkins (left) joined his parents Nico and Rich in Canada but faced a long wait for the authorities to acknowledge his status.

Status struggles

When a young person from an army family is over the age of 18 but under 24, they’re no longer automatically classed as an entitled family member unless they remain unmarried and in full-time education, although there is an exception for anyone with additional needs. Housing allocation may be affected and families posted overseas may face additional travel costs and restrictions on access to medical and dental treatment.

When he finished university, Callum Jenkins moved to Germany to live with his parents and worked in the BFG vehicle licensing office.

“Since Brexit it has become more complex for young people who are not in education to accompany parents as they now need a visa in their own right to work in host nations,” says Esther Thomas.

When Callum’s family was posted to Canada, he had a frustrating wait of many months for immigration to recognise his status and issue a work permit. “I find it difficult to understand why the regulations are so out-of-date and don’t reflect modern society,” he says. “Young adults in their late teens or post-uni often still have to live at home, not through choice but because they can’t afford not to.

“How can it be right for an 18-year old to suddenly lose the right to live with their parents?

“There should be an entitlement to remain as a family unit.”

Key connections

There are many organisations coming up with new ways of communicating with young people. A SCiP project in the pipeline aims to reach post-16s who have become isolated by helping them to build connections through an online platform. SSAFA Chatter is a new podcast series with episodes for children and their parents around mental wellbeing. The Royal Caledonian Education Trust, has welcomed young people to help design a board game and comic book to explain life in a forces family (more on page 60 of the autumn edition of Army&you).

Reading Force is engaging with teenagers to find out what resources they want and working with a young designer to come up with an eye-catching design for new materials.

The Real Troopers has been set up by Tilly Radwell who was a military child herself. She has written an e-book called On The Move and is building a community on social media (more on page 61 of the autumn edition of Army&you).

Tilly says: “Everyone has had unique experiences and their own ways of dealing with situations that could really help another young person, so this is a place to turn to get advice and to read the stories of those who have been through it all before.”

Growing up in a service family may not always be easy but many young people will look back with a smile.

Ashleigh concludes: “I’m so glad we lived the army life, it’s given us so many opportunities to see and do things that other people don’t.

“That has come with sacrifices but on the whole, it’s been great!”

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