Introducing her recent report on forces children, the children’s commissioner concludes they should be "celebrated", and the document repeatedly emphasises their resilience. But it’s helpful if wider society understands that the resilience of services children needs to be worked towards rather than assumed as innate.
Forces families are largely invisible; below the radar because of geographical isolation and their tendency (pun intended) to soldier on. Services accommodation does not feature on local authority mapping and occupants are often viewed as an indistinguishable mass rather than individuals.
Despite the reduced commitments of the armed services in Afghanistan, forces children still experience regular deployment-related separations, and regular periods of living apart due to short-term postings. Perhaps they will have no housing/school/special needs support at the next destination. Sometimes families opt to stay put, so weekend-parenting becomes the norm. Of course, other children experience separation (e.g., those with parents on temporary contracts or oil-rigs, etc), but for forces families the disruptions can be relentless, unpredictable and against the background of world events beamed everywhere.
Grandparents are now the UK’s most common source of childcare; an option routinely unavailable to forces families who can find it harder to maintain wider family connections. On-screen (Skype/FaceTime) relationships with deployed parents are difficult. "Operational requirements" may mean planned contacts are cancelled, the technology doesn’t always work, and hearing a familiar voice can make everyone feel emotional – and it may be hard to think what to say. Younger children may be angry and resist such contact all together.
Forces children can feel isolated
When schools have strong pressure on admissions, itinerant forces children who "deny" places to local families may find particular hostility. Civilian parents may advise against making friends with a services child "as you will only have your heart broken when they leave".
Differentness can also lead to bullying. Humans (of all ages) can spot weakness. Questions about why a parent has chosen to go a war zone and whether they will ever come back are movingly captured in the Royal Caledonian Education Trust’s play for schools This Is My Life.
The commissioner’s report highlights the importance of parents giving schools more notice of impending moves, but resistance isn’t hard to understand. From the moment a child knows they are leaving, they effectively become an "ex-pupil", particularly painful if their replacement’s name is known. Families know too that arrangements change, often at the last minute.
There’s also the wider diaspora of children whose forces identity has been disrupted by parental relationship-breakdown – more common in this population. Displaced from their communal life, they face an uncertain future –and need particular support.
Children who connect with services families are often intrigued by life "behind the wire". There is always someone to play with, children tend to wander in and out of each others’ houses – it’s common to find someone else’s child sitting on your loo – and bikes abandoned outside are usually still there in the morning. Removal vans appear regularly and neighbours are quick to support whatever was going on pre-posting – which may be the final stages of pregnancy. Bonds are formed quickly and remain long after tours finish.
We have two solutions. Our charity, Reading Force (founded in Aldershot in 2011) encourages forces families to connect through shared-reading; choosing a book to share with family members and recording responses (e.g., pictures, photographs, letters, emails, texts, via Skype) in a free reading scrapbook. Families have reported that involvement builds relationships and communication, providing common ground and a strong shared experience, which is particularly valuable if it helps to navigate a time they were dreading. Largely thanks to teachers (commonly forces partners themselves) taking the scheme when they move, we’ve distributed over 100,000 scrapbooks worldwide; many families participate yearly.
Secondly, we suggest incorporating a short introduction to forces families within basic teacher training, as for other social and special educational needs. This would widen understanding – particularly valuable to those who encounter forces children only rarely – but also potentially extend teaching career options. We have an outline plan to pilot at Kingston University this year.
A teacher at Latchmere School, Kingston-upon-Thames, routinely home to 40 or more services children, once told me that she felt everyone benefitted from their presence. The parents get involved and are action-orientated PTA members, while school support for their children, as they seek to manage change, embeds an understanding of other people’s lives – and hence builds resilience in everyone. Win-win.
Alison Baverstock is associate professor of publishing at Kingston University and director of the Kingston University Big Read
To obtain a free reading scrapbook and starter book, please go to www.readingforce.org.uk