Taking off

6th May 2011 at 01:00
With Moray already facing a surplus of pupil places, losing the RAF would hit schools hard. And with a Fife base also at risk, the fallout could spread farther.

Moray is on hold. For more than six months people have been waiting to discover the fate of its biggest employer, the Royal Air Force. The base at Kinloss is already being wound down, a victim of slashed defence budgets last October, but no one knows what is planned for Lossiemouth.

Moray headteachers and education officials are ploughing through the daily reality of their own budget cuts; the RAF issue will not be at the forefront of their minds until an official announcement by the UK Government in the coming weeks. But however vague the threat, there is no doubting its scale - if the RAF goes, teaching jobs go and schools go.

There are 88,000 people in Moray. A Highlands and Islands Enterprise report last year showed that 5,710 of them were in jobs supported by the RAF; there were 1,919 RAF children, of whom 1,237 went to council-run schools.

The head of educational resources at Moray council, Alistair Farquhar, remains hopeful that the two Moray bases will not close completely; even if the RAF leaves en masse, there are rumours the Army will move into Kinloss and, more fancifully, that Lossiemouth could become a centre for space tourism.

Yet the threat is real enough for him to discuss the impact on Moray's 45 primary schools and eight secondaries in the "doomsday scenario" that 1,000-plus children suddenly leave the authority, which currently has around 3,000 more school places than pupils.

"An RAF departure, on top of an already surplus capacity, and we could well be looking at reducing by 10 primaries, and the sustainability of eight secondaries would be seriously compromised," he said. "And that, of course, has a knock-on effect on whether you employ so many teachers."

Moray is a largely rural area of farming, whisky and food brands such as Walkers and Baxters; it does not have the diverse economy that would help absorb the loss of thousands of RAF personnel.

"It's like dropping a big stone in a pretty small pond - the ripples will hit," Mr Farquhar said. "It's difficult to envisage any element of Moray that isn't somehow or other going to be impacted, from the Tesco to the one-man tyre-fitter."

Social workers have concerns about plummeting numbers of foster families, and charities fear many volunteers will be lost. Damaged, too, would be the deep sense of pride people take from having the RAF on their doorstep since the 1930s.

For now, it is the "vacuum of uncertainty" that concerns Mr Farquhar most: "You want to be as prepared as you can, but there really is no point in our doing detailed work on the basis of speculative pronouncements.

"I suspect it'll be at least two or three years before we get real clarity on what the impact is."

There are around 100 RAF pupils at Lossiemouth High, in a roll of 700, but few tangible signs of links with the base little over 100 yards away - only a poster at the main doors inviting signatures to a petition supporting RAF Lossie, and the occasional reek of kerosene and whip crack of noise from jets overhead.

Headteacher Brenda Gifford cannot tell her staff the consequences of falling pupil numbers because, until the Government announcement, "we simply don't know what's going to happen".

There is "a general feeling of uncertainty that is preventing people from moving forward", she explained; "Nobody is investing in things or planning". People are finding it impossible to sell houses, while the school has had "huge numbers" of applications for technicians' or administration posts from highly skilled RAF personnel who may have handled multi- million-pound budgets.

The loss of the RAF would certainly threaten what the school offers pupils outwith statutory requirements, including choices in S1-2 covering creative and expressive arts, such as school shows, and a literacy option encompassing a trip to Europe. "It would be those richer activities that we would perhaps be trimming first," Mrs Gifford said.

The "huge" impact on local business, meanwhile, would reduce opportunities for work experience and jobs for school-leavers.

The school rarely uses the RAF base's excellent facilities, as these are all behind tight security. But there is close mutual understanding: flights will be delayed during music exams, and the school allows pupils to take days off with parents who have been away for months. The school's strong emphasis on leadership has been complemented by the philosophy and support of RAF families, who were "right behind" a drive to improve school uniform - "they see the importance of being dressed for work".

Even if the worst-case scenario is announced, Mrs Gifford hopes the RAF influence will remain: service families often grow attached to Moray and put down roots.

Times have changed at Kinloss Primary. When inspected in February 2007, there were 246 pupils; education officials say the roll used to be as high as 400. Now, as the RAF base right next door winds down towards official closure in 2015, there are 157 pupils.

Headteacher Robert Hair says the roll has stabilised and the village could grow again. He brings up rumours that, come 2015, the Army will move in, although it is unclear whether this would match the presence of RAF Kinloss, which last year supported 2,341 jobs.

"There was a lot of hype that it was going to be devastating and everything would change," Mr Hair said. "Over time there may be a bigger impact, but we're anticipating it's business as usual."

RAF personnel have long played a big part in school life, from running sports clubs to teaching pupils about electrical circuits. The school has become accustomed to losing such benefits at a stroke; people who used to take football and badminton were posted elsewhere and no one has taken over those activities.

Every couple of months a handful of pupils arrive or leave the school, as parents take up new postings. Typically, staff will not learn of any particular difficulties until a child sets foot on the premises. A part- time additional support needs teacher specialises in assessing any special requirements.

Another challenge was highlighted by HMIE before Mr Hair arrived at the school in 2006: there was a split between officers' and non-officers' children in the playground. This disappeared after Mr Hair introduced monthly "chat `n' chill" sessions for all parents to discuss any problems.

Although service children can add to a school's workload, Mr Hair believes it is more than worthwhile: "They bring a bit of buoyancy and life, they're very adaptable, and they get stuck in. All that definitely rubs off on our own kids."

It may come down to a choice between RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leuchars, where the impact of closure would be scarcely less profound. (RAF Marham in Norfolk could be another option.)

The Fife base supports 1,900 jobs locally, contributing about pound;60 million annually to the Fife economy. The area has recently lost jobs at Curtis Fine Papers (260), Torith builders (110) and Kettle Produce (100), and is heavily reliant on the ever-diminishing public sector. Unemployment is already above average, while the release of 700 RAF homes would lower house prices in an already depressed market.

To close the RAF base would be a "devastating blow", states a Fife Council report; it is predicted that young people would leave in droves.

Within the 14 primaries feeding the local secondary (Madras College in St Andrews), 11 per cent of pupils have parents in the RAF. Area education officer John McLaughlin is clear that the loss of RAF Leuchars would require a review of the whole north-east Fife school estate, where 5 per cent of pupils across 40 schools are RAF children; there would also be repercussions for Madras, which has 100-140 RAF pupils in a roll of 1,500.

"The economic impact would be very, very significant, and that would run through a whole range of support services," Mr McLaughlin said. "Fife would take some time to recover."

The RAF is as synonymous with the identity of Moray and north-east Fife as steel production once was to Lanarkshire and car production to Renfrewshire. They, too, would be damaged and fundamentally changed by the loss of their largest employer - and schools would be exposed to the fallout.

A wing and a prayer: plight of the forces pupil

Children of armed forces families are often schools' most adaptable and resilient pupils - but they can equally be the most fragile. Several recent reports have underlined the extreme pressure they bear, with a picture emerging of widespread, systematic failure in providing the support they need.

Guidance for schools, published last year by the Department for Education in England, made a striking argument: "Given the characteristics that many of these children share, there is a strong argument that they should be recognised as a potentially vulnerable group."

The guidance recorded comments of one pupil, aged about 10, which crystallised evidence for that view: "It scares me when he goes to those dangerous places because you never know what will happen . I go into a daydream the whole time he is gone - I can't concentrate at school so don't learn anything and then when he comes back I have a big gap."

The Overlooked Casualties of Conflict, a 2009 report by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Children's Fund, found it common for children to arrive at school with only their latest exercise books to guide their new teachers; full records might take months to arrive. It also showed that behavioural problems increased during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The biggest obstacle to helping such children is that no one knows where they all are. In 2006, the House of Commons defence committee deemed it "unacceptable that there is still no means of determining a reliable figure for the number of service children in UK schools". The same report found that frequent moves made by forces children can have a "significant detrimental impact on young people, particularly on their willingness to form friendships with peers".

In Scotland, several strands of work are underway to counter such problems, largely driven by the Children from Service Families Stakeholders Network, whose members represent, among others, the armed forces, schools, HMIE, local authorities and mental health and psychological services.

Geoff Urie, headteacher of Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, represents schools. With the Faslane nuclear submarine base only a few miles away, his school has about 600 out of 1,400 pupils from naval families; they may have to cope with parents being away for three to six months at a time without any contact. The school has eight school chaplains to help pupils cope, including ministers and youth workers, and has implemented ideas from "Seasons for Growth" - an Australian bereavement programme.

There is no system that tracks a child's progress from school to school. Mr Urie recalls one boy who, after moving from a Scottish primary to Germany and then to Cyprus, discovered he was going to learn about medieval Norse invaders, leading him to splutter "Not the bloody Vikings again!" A "learning passport", which would give a standardised, detailed account of a child's previous education, is being designed by the network.

Another member is Carolyn MacLeod, manager of the Scottish education project for the Royal Caledonian Schools Trust, which was established in 1815 to help educate armed forces children. "If there's any one factor that has an impact on helping service families settle in an area, it's getting your child happy in school - then the other bits and pieces fall into place," she said.

The trust, in a recent innovation, has trained 18 "service champions" in schools around Scotland to provide extra support to children, especially during deployment; at Edinburgh's Firrhill High, which has many children of service personnel stationed at nearby barracks, an entire part-time post of "induction teacher for service children" has been created.

But arguably the most important piece of work is the ongoing attempt of the armed forces to establish, finally, how many service children there are in Scotland - a figure the Ministry of Defence expects to release this month.

A place to stay: the services children who are happy to board

Queen Victoria School in Dunblane has the opposite problem from Moray and Fife councils. This Ministry of Defence boarding school for P7-S6 children of armed forces families will be inundated with requests for places in coming years, following last year's Government announcement that the British Army was moving out of Germany.

With a capacity of 277 pupils, the school is already over-subscribed by parents willing to pay pound;1,200-a-year fees for educational stability. Two children who arrived in P7 had already been to 11 schools.

"Pupils are generally happy at the beginning of term, which I've never seen in any other boarding school," says headteacher Wendy Bellars. "They know they're going to be staying here and can flourish."

The downside is they are more likely to be separated from parents. "The pastoral side is more active here," Mrs Bellars says. "There are all sorts of advantages, but also some distinct disadvantages, to being in the armed forces." One pupil revealed that, a few years previously, he had been convinced his father was dead, despite the explanation from his mother that he was away on duty, but did not tell anyone at the time.

"The children are each other's best support - being surrounded by peers, who know what it's like to have your dad on a submarine for four months without contact," Mrs Bellars says.

Few staff are from military backgrounds, but empathy with the armed forces is a must. There is no point in appointing a chaplain who is a member of CND or an "out-and-out pacifist", Mrs Bellars says; staff "need to be in harmony with the children and their families", although there is no edict against discussing opposition to military action in class time.

Recent events in Libya have not required a special response: "It's part of our everyday existence to be aware not just of where Her Majesty's forces are, but that some of the children might have parents involved." Pupils are constantly reminded that, for all the difficulties of being a forces child, their parents' work is worthwhile.

"Having a parent who puts their life in danger - that makes them very proud," Mrs Bellars says. "They have at least one member of their family who has realised there is something more important than self."

An arsenal for the economy


Full-time equivalent jobs supported by RAF in Moray in 2010


Gross income of jobs supported by RAF in Moray in 2010


Approximate population of Moray


RAF children aged up to 16 in Moray in 2010


Jobs supported by RAF Leuchars, directly and indirectly


Income to Fife economy from jobs supported by RAF


Proportion of primary pupils in feeder schools for Madras College in St Andrews whose parents work in RAF.

Original headline: Will schools be left hanging in the wind if the RAF takes flight?

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