They're all at sea, but a book brings them together
When the Royal Navy's ultra-modern destroyer HMS Diamond is deployed in June, destination currently top secret, some of the ship's service personnel will be packing children's books - to help them keep in touch with their families.
They will be taking part in Reading Force, a reading and literacy project launched last year by Kingston University lecturer and soldier's wife Alison Baverstock, who wanted to create an experience that service families can share when they are apart - even if a parent is on the front line in Afghanistan.
The initiative aims to tackle educational achievement among the children of soldiers or sailors on active service. It involves encouraging serving military personnel and their families at home to read and discuss the same book.
The process, which can also involve other family members and civilian friends, culminates in the production of an online scrapbook about the chosen book. Groups that do this have the chance to win a prize.
After being trialled in Aldershot, Hampshire, Reading Force has now received #163;80,000 of funding from the Ministry of Defence to expand the scheme across four counties: Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
England has an estimated 37,000 school-aged service children, of whom 9,700 are in these four counties alone. On average, their school performance is higher than that of their peers, but this is heavily skewed by the families of officers. When background factors are taken into account, they perform at the same level.
In addition, a 2009 US study found that children can suffer from emotional problems when a parent is deployed overseas. Service children also move around far more: Department for Education figures show that 58 per cent move during junior school, compared with 38 per cent of non-service children.
With so much separation, Mrs Baverstock has created a project that focuses on sharing. It can be inspiring for children to know that their parent is carrying with them the book they have chosen, she said.
"There can be a difficulty when partners come back. Because life has moved on, it is quite good to have something that the family progressed together while they were away," she added.
Chloe Armstrong, 12, of the Connaught School in Aldershot, took part in the project last year, even though her father, who is in the Army, was not on active service at the time. Her prize for completing the online scrapbook was meeting Doctor Who actor David Tennant and attending his recording of an audio book of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again.
"My dad heard about the project at work and thought it looked like fun," Chloe said. "We thought we'd give it a go.
"Meeting David Tennant was fun; he was really nice. I am a Doctor Who fan and the day before we'd actually been to the Doctor Who experience, but I was too shy when I met him to ask any questions."
Julia Pearce, assistant head of English at the Connaught School, which has 69 service children, said: "The project gave us the opportunity to promote reading in a particular section of the school. It was a chance to make those children feel special."
Mrs Baverstock said the idea sprung from her own life. "I'm married to a soldier and one of the issues is that, when you are separated, it can be quite hard to keep in touch," she said. "You get phone calls, but they can be stressful because you want to make use of this precious time and you can't think of anything to talk about.
"The idea is that this should promote communication through reading."
The books recommended in the initiative last year included:
- How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, who visited Aldershot to launch the scheme
- The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
- Bobby Moore, By The Woman Who Knew Him Best, a biography of the late footballer by his first wife Tina Moore.