Growing up in an army family throws up some unique challenges – separation from parents, moving schools and changing friendships to name a few. So, what impact do these factors have on service children’s education, and how much of a say do our youngsters have on their army lives? Jill Misson reports…

WHEN you talk to children about their serving parents, even the youngest will have something to say. Seven-year-old Emma Shayler, for example, told us: “Sometimes he’s away so much that I feel like I have no dad. I’m sad and I cry but I’ve learned to be brave.”

Jess Parfitt

Jess Parfitt (13, pictured left) said: “My dad has gone away 72 times since I was born. I feel low-spirited due to the fear of losing him but I’m proud and full of admiration because he’s protecting our country.”

AFF is working with people from the University of Winchester on vital research, as AFF Education Specialist Jilly Carrell explained: “Decisions are made for a military child about moving house, moving country and moving school. We need to hear from the children themselves if we are to make changes to improve their young lives and their educational outcomes.”

Matt Blyton from North Yorkshire County Council agreed: “Pupils of armed forces personnel are a special group who bring many strengths and talents to their schools, but the lifestyle often presents challenges not of their choosing, so at times they require additional support.”

Matt ran a conference in 2012 inviting more than 60 service school children to share their views. One key message emerged: “We don’t want to be treated differently but we do want to be understood and to be given extra help when it’s needed.”

Encourage expression

Some children may struggle to articulate feelings, which is when a dedicated service pupils’ champion or an emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA) is an asset.

At St George’s Catholic Primary in Warminster, Archie Harriman (6, pictured below) goes to see “the string lady” as he calls the school’s ELSA. Mum Jessica said: “They created pictures showing everyone in our family connected by a string so when Archie is upset, he can pull on the string so daddy will feel it.”

Archie Harriman

Headteacher Kate Saunders’ army background enables her to understand the needs of service pupils. She said: “They experience stress when a parent is deployed, and this can be hugely exacerbated by what they see on the news.

“Even if the parent is not in a dangerous location, it leaves a gap in their lives. Children may have to change schools frequently and leave friends behind.”

When Jessica Parkinson (9) left one school her classmates gave her a picture featuring all their fingerprints. She told her mum: “I don’t want to make any new friends because you’re just going to move us again.”

The first day in a new school is the hardest, according to Ava Kerr (9): “I feel nervous that I don’t know anybody and scared that I won’t make friends.”

She was helped to settle at Priory Church in Wales School by their military liaison officer, who organises group activities like fitness and cookery.

Social media helps children to maintain long-distance friendships, as Amy-Lea Price (9) explained: “I try to download games that you can play with your old friends online.”

Raising awareness

In 2018 there were 76,319 service children being educated in England, with many more in schools in the devolved nations and throughout the world.

In Scotland, Colin Flinn from the Royal Caledonian Education Trust (RCET) said: “The different education systems abroad and within the UK mean pupils can experience gaps in their learning, covering topics more than once or not being able to access subjects they were studying.”

In Wales, schools don’t receive Service Pupil Premium funding but there are other funding streams to support service children. Term dates vary across the UK, with a nine-week summer holiday in Northern Ireland.

Many teachers still have a lot to learn about the life of military children. Colin added: “There’s a perception that forces pupils are resilient and will simply get on with the challenges they face as that’s what they are used to.”

A seminar was held in March this year for trainee teachers at Kingston University. Dr Alison Baverstock, founder of the charity Reading Force, said: “Within PGCE courses, students cover how to spot a child with special needs, or one who is potentially at risk, and we think it would be helpful for all teachers to gain some understanding of what it’s like to be a child in a forces family.

“We are planning to share our information with the Department for Education and Skills and HE Ministry, in the hope of influencing wider practice.”

The Little Troopers at School project aims to educate the educators, as charity founder Louise Fetigan explained: “We have developed a series of story books that are a great asset to any school library and role-play outfits for military representation in early years settings.

“This year we introduced resources for children with additional needs and coming soon is the military child wellbeing course template.”

Aiming for attainment

Parents want their children to be happy at school, but academic progress is also important.

A 2019 report by Hampshire County Council concluded: “It would appear that as service pupils grow up, their relative attainment in comparison to non-service, non-disadvantaged pupils weakens, and the gap grows negatively.”

Research also shows that children from military families are less likely to go to university, which is why AFF is working with partners such as the University of Winchester to investigate.

But discouraging statistics can’t stand in the way of a young person with aspirations to achieve. Jess Parfitt said: “I wish to study law at Oxford or Cardiff when I grow up. Being a military child has given me many advantages like confidence and good communication skills and I’m grateful for those opportunities.”

AFF’s Jilly Carrell added: “Without their experience and unique perspective, we cannot truly represent service children’s views. We should also be celebrating their achievements and ability to adapt to complex challenges.”

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