Forces school that stays alert to families on manoeuvre

7th August 2009 at 01:00
A secondary in Germany, part of a network set up for the children of British military personnel, must guard against the pressures of high pupil mobility - and possible deployment to the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq. David Marley reports

It is pretty difficult to rebel around here," explains 17-year-old Holly Walker. "The odd person dyeing their hair is about as far as it goes." Anything more, she says, is just "not the Army way".

Holly and her friends are not young recruits in training for military careers, however. They are pupils at one of the 43 schools run around the world for the children of British servicemen and women.

Windsor School, on the joint HQ base in Rheindahlen, near Dusseldorf in Germany, is one of just six secondaries. It has about 550 pupils but, like all Service Children's Education (SCE) schools, the students who start the school year are never the same as the ones who finish it.

Pupil turnover at Windsor is around 40 per cent each year. In some of the primaries, the figure is close to 100 per cent as parents get moved to other bases. In other cases, the parents' redeployment is to fight on the front line. The rising death toll of British personnel in Afghanistan is not something SCE schools can shy away from. At Windsor, it is rare for none of the parents to be stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"We don't hide from the issue of deployment," says headteacher Brian Davies. "We have to address the question of `what is my dad doing there?'.

"We work very closely with the regiments, so we are always aware of deployments before they occur. When they do, we work with parents to reassure their children.

"We try to make school the bit that does not change. But at the same time we have a sharp focus on what the deployment might be - assemblies on Afghanistan, assemblies run by soldiers returning from Afghanistan, school involvement in fundraising to build a new school in Kabul.

"There is also a focus on the humanitarian effort, which gets lost in the news coverage on Afghanistan."

Mr Davies and other members of staff go through special training on what to do should one of the children's parents be injured or die in battle. "We have a counsellor and if incidents occur we can get additional help," he says. "We can't say it's not going to happen."

British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the support on offer to pupils through SCE ever more valuable.

"It is quite normal here for someone's dad to be sent to Afghanistan," says Holly. "In a school in England, people could try and be supportive, but they would not really understand in the same way."

But the fear of the worst happening does not define the school's character, staff or pupils. The students are mainly from Army families, followed by the Navy and Air Force. Most have grown up moving from base to base and country to country.

Alex Masters, 17, is not atypical: with a father in the Navy, since he started at secondary he has attended schools in Portsmouth, Belgium and Italy before arriving in Germany.

As Mr Davies points out, if you arrive as the "new kid", it does not last long. "Pupils leave every week and arrive every week," he says. "We live with turbulence and are set up to deal with it."

At Windsor, pupil intake is even more varied because of the base's role as home to Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a Nato unit made up of international soldiers. That means there are 10 nationalities among the pupils, including Americans, Canadians and Spanish. Other foreign countries are also represented, including forces children from Fiji.

While being home to the rapid reaction corps brings an international dimension to the base, plans to relocate the unit to the UK will ultimately mean the school will close. The corps will relocate to Innsworth in Gloucester in the summer of 2010, with the school to close by 2013. It opened in 1987, the result of a merger of two other SCE schools. At its height, the school had more than 1,000 pupils on roll.

Although it is based in Germany and draws pupils from around the world, Windsor is very much an English school. It follows the national curriculum, does the same external exams and is subject to Ofsted inspections.

The school is developing its 14-19 programme in line with developments in England, but Mr Davies admits it can be a challenge without the same network of schools and local industry that many other schools rely on. Windsor's nearest SCE neighbour is more than 100 miles away.

Despite the distance, there is a community spirit among the forces schools, which helps teachers to respond to the turnover of pupils. The school's system is designed to aid continuity. If pupils have started GCSE or A-level courses, they can stay and complete them even if their parents are posted elsewhere. Windsor is the only SCE school to offer termly boarding, with about 100 pupils currently boarders.

The other great bonus for teachers trying to cater for a pupil population in flux is the attitude of the students themselves. "They are incredibly tolerant and adaptable and develop relationships very quickly," says Mr Davies.

Matthew Laing, 15, says students "learn to make friends fast, but you learn to let them go because they move on".

All the pupils seem to agree that the experience of moving around, and the discipline that comes as second nature, makes them mature quickly and able to cope with almost constant change.

Windsor staff share that opinion. Colleen Downham, head of RE, joined the school only last year, having worked at a comprehensive in south London for the previous eight years. "I have never been happier in my career," she says. "Everything is different and much better. Speaking to teachers with more experience, you can understand why they stay so long. It's a bit like a winning lottery ticket. The children are great. They are not fazed about moving schools. There is still a close community feel - it's not like pupils are just plucked from one area and thrown into another."

Mrs Downham describes the job as the "best of both worlds" as it allows her to live in a foreign country while still teaching a British curriculum and enables her to progress with her career.

As well as better discipline and the opportunity to live overseas, SCE schools offer other incentives to staff. Teachers are paid on normal state school scales, but there is a Pounds 4,000 annual recruitment and retention allowance and a cost of living allowance, which in Germany is another Pounds 10,000 a year for a married teacher with two children. Teachers living on base also receive free housing for five years.

Mr Davies says they do not struggle to recruit. Just two of their teachers are married to soldiers, with another half-dozen married to Germans or Dutch. The border with the Netherlands is a short drive away.

The overall deal for teachers has clearly proved attractive to William McKenna, who has been teaching in SCE schools in Germany since 1974.

Mr McKenna's six children have all gone through the forces schools and one of his sons now teaches at one of Windsor's feeder primaries on the same base.

"There is more money, easier options to travel and better discipline," he says. "I'd encourage anyone to try it."

Forces families have the option of sending their children to subsidised places in boarding schools in the UK, but many choose not to take them.

Warrant Officer Pete Wyatt, one of whose daughters is a Windsor pupil, says having children around is "hugely important", especially as soldiers spend a lot of time away from home.

"The schools understand the pressures that deployment can bring on family life," he says. "When you are away, you don't want to worry about what is going on at home. It is very important to know that your children are in an environment that understands and cares about them."

According to WO Wyatt, the only downside is a lack of "street awareness" for when the pupils leave school and move back to England. "If you look around the base, it's like a bit of rural England that has been picked up and put down in Germany," he says.

Thoughts of how they will fit in after they leave school also occupy the pupils' minds. Many have not lived in Britain for more than a handful of years. They are unsure whether it feels like home, but for most of them, that is where they want to study or work - at least temporarily. Having grown used to an itinerant life, though, there is a consensus that staying in one place for too long could become boring.

SCE came in for some criticism from Ofsted five years ago for problems with its leadership and for not offering all of its schools proper support.

Windsor School has, however, made significant progress in exam results since that time. In 2005, 49 per cent of its pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths. By last year, that figure was up to 64.7 per cent, which is impressive given its pupils' high levels of mobility. Its most recent Ofsted report said it was good overall with outstanding features.

As The TES visit draws to an end, Mr Davies reminds us to write something nice. "Don't forget, we know a lot of men with guns," he says, smiling broadly.


Service Children's Education is an agency of the Ministry of Defence that runs schools for pupils whose parents are in the armed forces or who are MoD personnel.

Primary schools operate in all overseas commands that are big enough to support one, with secondary schools available in Germany and Cyprus.

Other countries in which te agency runs schools include Belgium, the Netherlands, Belize, Brunei and the Falkland Islands.

Schools follow the English national curriculum and teachers must have recognised UK qualifications.

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