Wendy Bellars

11th November 2011 at 00:00
The head of Queen Victoria School in Dunblane, an MoD-funded boarding institution for children of Armed Forces personnel, talks about the unique challenges her pupils face and the support they receive. By Henry Hepburn Photography by David Gordon

How important is 11 November to the school?

It's a huge occasion. Remembrance Sunday is the major parade - we have six or seven through the year. We get a lot of parents and former pupils, often in uniform; the chapel holds 300 but we always have more than that, so some pupils can't come in. The service is an act of remembrance, so there are two wreaths laid, one by myself, one by a former pupil. We observe a two-minute silence and sing hymns - "I Vow to Thee, My Country" is the school's favourite - then the whole school marches behind the band. It's a very moving day - I find it very draining emotionally.

What challenges does the school present?

Every child knows that at least one of their parents has made a decision that something is more important than life itself: they have signed up to a job that will very probably entail putting their lives on the line. That influences everything that we do.

What if the worst happens?

We've had two parental deaths since I came here (in 2007). When a P7 boy's father died, the whole school rallied round. The boy's class were all invited to write a letter to him. They were hugely supportive and sympathetic when he came back. It was very brave of his mother to allow him to come back to us - when you've lost your spouse, the last thing you want is for your child to be away, too. But she realised the value of the continuity, of being here with other service children, was the best support he could have.

What qualities are necessary to work at the school?

Staff have to be absolutely clear that they are here to support service families. There's no point in recruiting an anti-nuclear campaign supporter. All staff know the children are encouraged to talk to anyone they can - it might be a receptionist or a guard on the desk. With mobile phones, generally they can at least talk to mum, but there's nothing like talking to somebody face-to-face. Staff need a commitment to boarding, too - the day does not stop at 4pm.

Do QVS pupils have particular qualities?

They have two: the immense strength of one another's support - knowing everyone is a member of a service family - is an indescribable resource for them; and they are very good at coping with change, which I think is something to do with their families getting used to being moved around.

One pupil had been to 11 schools - how do you help children settle?

Most come in P7 - that's a year of settling them in and getting them more or less to the same stage academically. If they have been to a lot of schools, they have the immense benefit of knowing this is where they are probably going to be for the next seven years; they almost immediately relax and make great progress academically. We also have the benefit of a very good pupil-teacher ratio. We generally have a P7 of 36, and for many subjects they will be divided into three groups with a teacher each. We have 264 pupils, about 40 full-time staff and 40 or so support staff.

Are staff free to explore opposition to conflicts such as in Iraq?

Teachers are free to cover that in any way they want. We're in the business of preparing our pupils for the outside world - what's the point in shutting down an argument? But teachers are aware that the conflict in Iraq will have a resonance for our pupils that it may not have for others; they're very sensitive to what it might mean to pupils.

Is the role of a head different here?

QVS is unique: the only fully boarding school in Scotland; the only MoD- funded school in the UK; and, as far as I'm aware, the only mainstream non-fee-paying boarding school in Scotland. None of which may seem particularly strange, but, in combination, it means no other head in Scotland has the same range of challenges, frustrations and privileges. We're not a local authority school but we are a state school because we're funded through the defence budget; families make a pound;1,200 annual contribution, which was originally meant to be what it would cost to keep your child at home. Trying to run a school for the MoD can be immensely frustrating, because it sees us as just another MoD establishment, whereas we are a school and can't just be shut for two days if the heating goes down, treat pupils as if they were young Army recruits, or "gap" - leave empty - a post; the MoD has a ban on recruitment so we have to convince them to make exceptions.

What are you most proud of about the school?

It's tremendous that the MoD puts its money where its mouth is and looks after service families - I'm immensely proud that the MoD makes that commitment. It's a wonderful statement about the way we look after our Armed Forces. I'm proud when I see the children on parade, because they are so committed, and I'm proud on a day-to-day basis with the way they are getting on with relatively normal lives, while dealing with a burden that most children their age do not have to carry around - the knowledge that one of their parents may be killed or seriously injured in the course of their job.


Born: Glasgow, 1960

Education: Hillhead Primary and Hillhead High; studied English and Scottish literature at Glasgow University, trained as English teacher at Jordanhill College

Career: Spells in Scotland and England, state and independent schools, including Gordonstoun and head at St Leonard's in St Andrews. Open University staff tutor in education before starting at Queen Victoria in 2007.

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