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Sentry duty in the fog of war

Under battle conditions, a school has to provide a special kind of pastoral care

Pastoral care takes on a whole new meaning when children are separated from parents working in or near a war zone. Yet this is a daily challenge for Queen Victoria School in Dunblane, Scotland's only boarding school for children of service personnel.

Brian Raine, the headteacher, says that one of the greatest challenges is to counteract the media. Fast-changing world events deeply affect the life of all 280 pupils, Mr Raine says, not just those whose parents may be at the heart of the action "as empathy and solidarity among service kids is unusually high".

"During the Iraq war, we had daily briefing sessions to let pupils know as much as we could about what was going on. And, as conflict continues, we monitor events closely and are quick to react to any developments," Mr Raine said.

"We treat children according to their needs, but the circumstances of their parents' profession force them to face up to some pretty big concepts. In response, we treat all pupils in as adult a fashion as possible, and always make sure they have as much information as we can gather."

The school also stresses the virtues of scepticism. "It is important that the pupils understand how the media works, so that they learn not to take at face value everything which is reported."

This point is echoed by Pipe Major Gordon Ross, deputy housemaster at the school, who says his 18 years in the army help him appreciate that initial reports from a conflict zone are not always accurate.

"The media tend to be on the fringes of conflict activity at best and we do our best to reassure children under our care that information coming from our own personal contacts and MoD (Ministry of Defence) sources is much more credible," Pipe Major Ross said. "This is, after all, of crucial significance to our pupils and we always have to be mindful of the considerable addition pressures they are under during their schooldays.

"Not only are they boarding away from home, but some may not see an absent parent for months at a time. We therefore have to be there for them 247 and have an open-door policy for any child to approach any teacher at any time."

Pipe Major Ross, like many of the staff, wears two hats. "The best and worst of it is that you may have had a difficult day in class, yet when the classroom door closes you are going to spend the evening with those same children, in a caring capacity.

"It's both exhausting and hugely rewarding to be constantly exchanging hats in this way; changing from teacher to carer and, during term time at least, never being off duty."

Like many of the staff, Pipe Major Ross lives on campus, with his wife and six-year-old son. He describes pastoral care as a constant challenge but adds: "The rewards are superb. The feedback and interaction with pupils is immense and the satisfaction from seeing a child in your care grow in confidence and maturity over the years is a real privilege".

This does not come easily. Children have often had a fragmented early education, with as many as 10 different primary schools. This brings its own challenges and Mr Raine laments the fact that the school receives no extra money for learning support.

"Some of our pupils may have passed through several different education systems both here and abroad before they come to us," he says. "They may have missed vital building blocks in their learning and developed a variety of coping strategies in response to moving about a lot.

"Our teachers therefore have to be very resourceful in dealing with the variety of challenges our unique remit throws up."

Mr Raine adds: "The service lifestyle puts huge stresses on families and we have a lot of responsibility to ensure links are maintained in whatever ways are possible. Our pastoral care extends to maintaining links with both the serving parent and any other parent who may be left behind, so QVS teaching staff have to be very open in their communication."

Little things like encouraging children to write to absent fathers on a regular basis are important in helping to cement bonds and keep families in close touch. But, Mr Raine points out, the needs vary massively from child to child and in relation to where their parents may be posted.

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