As well as suffering the stress of seeing their parents deployed to war zones, children in military families can have their schooling disturbed by moving home frequently.
But until now, very little research has explored how young people feel about switching schools. A new project, however, is set to change that by asking children about their experiences, with the aim of improving their time in education.
The Royal Caledonian Education Trust, which helps British armed forces families to access education, is backing the research after becoming frustrated with the lack of available evidence.
Moira Leslie, education programme officer at the trust and a former headteacher, said: “I got tired of only being able to give schools anecdotal evidence about what they could do to support children from forces families.
“I wanted empirical evidence but that was impossible to find in the UK, let alone Scotland. This piece of research is not asking staff what they think. It will be concerned with the views and experiences of children.”
Constantly on the move
Military personnel, including a major in the Royal Engineers, told TESS that there was room for improvement in the way schools dealt with families.
The major has moved with his family seven times in nine years, and in April he moved from England to his regiment’s base in Kinloss in Moray. One of his three sons had done two years of schooling in England – Reception and Year 1 – but at his new primary was “effectively asked to repeat P1”.
“The solution we arrived at was to move up to some classes in the year above. So we got a solution but most people don’t,” the major said
He called for the Ministry of Defence to be more flexible and to allow families with children going through exams to stay put. Councils could also be more accommodating, he added.
“There is flexibility there but councils don’t necessarily reflect that,” he said. “In theory, children should be able to move up or down a year as necessary but some councils decide they are not going to allow that.”
The study, which is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is being led by Evelyn Cook from the University of Stirling’s School of Education. “Too often parents and teachers are asked to report on children’s experiences of school,” she said. “What are we missing by not including the views of young people?”
On the rare occasions when children were included in research, academics focused on the negative aspects of having a parent in the armed forces, such as the stress of deployment, Ms Cook said. But children themselves actually identified many positive aspects.
They reported that their experiences had made them quicker to adapt to new environments, more independent and better able to make friends. The deployment of a parent also led to a greater sense of family cohesion.
“My research argues that only by addressing how children and young people make sense of their experiences can we start to consider what teachers in schools can do to support them,” Ms Cook said.
The project has been welcomed by education directors’ body ADES. Carolyn MacLeod, transition officer for forces families – a post paid for by the MoD – said: “We need all sorts of research in this area. There is very little in the UK and even less in Scotland.
“Getting the participation of the young people is also positive. They have a vested interest in identifying things that work in school and things they might be concerned about.”
‘This will show us what children feel’
Raigmore Primary in Inverness serves the children of the Black Watch (3 Scots) battalion based at the Fort George barracks. Roughly half the school’s 200 pupils have a parent in the armed forces.
Headteacher Fiona Shearer, who has been at Raigmore for five years, welcomes research into how schools can best support forces pupils.
“I could tell you a lot about what my school does, from emotional check-ins every morning to a teacher out of class half the week to support pupils,” she says. “But there is not enough evidence-based research.
“This research will show us exactly what the children feel helps them, not what we think they need.”