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Preparing for war - in the classroom

"When are you going to come back from golf?" Joe had been away for a month, only it was the Gulf and not golf, and it wasn't his wife but his daughter who wanted to know when he was coming home. That was 1992. Now it's 2003, and I'm the head of a school in a garrison town with almost 30 per cent of my students coming from military families. The gossip has turned to the imminent departure of some parents to Iraq.

Whenever I talk with soldiers about their work, it's just like we teachers discussing ours. They talk of war and active service the same way we might discuss the timetable or the latest edict from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Not surprising, really; active service is their day job, it's what they spend all their time preparing for. So when their dads - and sometimes mums - prepare to leave for "the Gulf", we need to remember that while Iraq is different, it's not that different from what service kids are used to. Their parents are often away for long stretches on exercises or in Northern Ireland.

Pupils from military families are like most other kids except they might not be with you for that long - their home is usually just over the next horizon. Whether it's Hohne in Germany or Aldershot in England, home is a moveable feast. It's only the houses that are different. And when the family isn't moving, their fathers are.

For seven years I taught at Cornwall school, a Service Children's Education (SCE) school in Dortmund. The news from Iraq reminds me of the last time we sent soldiers to the Gulf. Yes, everyone was anxious, and yes, we prepared ourselves for the worst. I remember "the blu-ees", the free airmail letters a couple of my staff seemed constantly to be writing to their boyfriends, and that the Brits' tented camp was called the Baldrick lines.

But most of all I remember Animal Farm, the musical we were performing with a local gymnasium. This means the cast included German kids protesting against the "Krieg im Gulf", and Cornwall students whose dads were out there fighting. It didn't half give an edge to the performance. For our kids it was important that the play was the thing; it was a safe reality.

It's like that now, except this time it's Rock Challenge, a dance production, and the school is in the UK. Of course our kids will worry about their dads going off to war, but it is our job to keep the part of their lives we can influence as safe and ordinary as possible.

So what will we do? My senior team will discuss it first thing next week.

We'll look at pastoral support and get named contacts in the garrison and in each of the regiments sending personnel to Iraq. If they're people we know, even better.

We'll arrange for the school to be told before parents depart, so our pastoral team can keep a watching brief on their children. They'll also keep an eye on students whose parents are already on active service.

We'll let all our staff know what we're doing and check if any of them have close relatives in the forces or the TA who may be called up - and if any staff might be called up.

If we don't think we've got the resources, we'll get experts in to talk to us about how to deal with distressed pupils. And we'll review our policy for coping with a major crisis. Even if we don't expect the worst, we need to be prepared for it - that includes dealing with the media. I'll contact the military and the Secondary Heads Association to see if there are any examples of best practice, and adapt and filch to suit our needs.

But, most of all, we will do what we do best - provide a secure, caring environment in which children feel safe and confident to learn. And if we are asked, as we often are, to help a student who is going through a real personal crisis, we must treat them with the warmth, respect and restraint we would wish someone to give to our own sons and daughters.

Spokey Wheeler is head of the Wavell school, Farnborough, Hampshire

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