Uphill battle to cover armed forces children

The constant movement of children from military families is monitored by just three local councils, so how can Scotland meet their needs in the face of planned defence cuts?

Henry Hepburn

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Settling down into a new school is never going to be easy when you have been through eight nurseries before you even started P1. Forward planning for teachers is a little difficult when a school does not know if its roll will sink or soar.

These are just two of the many headache-inducing scenarios presented by a group of children with very particular additional support needs (ASN): the sons and daughters of armed forces personnel.

Additional needs, as defined by Scottish legislation, covers a wide gamut of difficulties - so much so that at a recent conference 37 per cent of all children in one local authority were said to have additional needs. But it still feels incongruous to apply the ASN tag to armed forces families. The military projects itself as strong, self-confident and full of vitality; "Be the Best" ran one army recruitment slogan.

It is easy, therefore, to be ignorant of just how vulnerable forces children can be.

At a May conference on the education of armed forces children in Scotland, filmed excerpts of interviews with some of these young people were shown. "I feel so angry I want to explode," said one teenage boy, of how he felt when his dad was away. Operational sensitivities may prevent children from even making a phone call to their mother or father for long periods of time; if the parent is working on a submarine, there may be no contact for months. More than one speaker at the conference likened that experience to a death in the family.

These children's families may be called upon to move at any time, perhaps zig-zagging around several countries; it is not unusual to rack up the number of schools attended into double figures. Children hop from curriculum to curriculum, sometimes sliding back a year, perhaps staying only a few weeks before moving on. Some delegates said that they could apply lessons learned from working with another particularly vulnerable group of itinerant children: Gypsy Travellers.

The turnover of forces children in Scottish schools has been exacerbated in recent years by Ministry of Defence (MoD) cuts, which have come with dramatic implications for some of Scotland's best-known military bases.

In Moray, for example, the RAF has moved out of Kinloss, but the base is now to be used by the Army; schools learned of this only when it was announced in the press. Kinloss Primary, right next to the base, has long been accustomed to working with forces families, but the challenges last year were unprecedented: 94 army children inundated the school at the start of the school year (see case study).

And in northeast Fife, RAF Leuchars has for many years had a huge influence on the area. But the Army is taking over the base, and the area is in flux. In past years, 85 per cent of Leuchars Primary children have been from forces families; the figure is still 65 per cent. But the future is anyone's guess.

"We are facing unprecedented and still undefined change - we could go up to about 600 pupils (from 257) or down to about 50," says depute head and pupil welfare officer Pauline Moir.

"A new pupil can change the dynamics of the school. Our P2 teacher has welcomed 14 new pupils into her class - that's been a huge amount of work for her."

The Royal Caledonian Education Trust, which supports the children of Scots who are serving or have served in the armed forces, stresses that the welfare of these children is not limited to schools in a handful of areas.

"These children are right across Scotland, in every single local authority," says Carolyn MacLeod, the trust's education programme manager for five years. But only three out of 32 local authorities have demonstrated formal arrangements to ascertain how many forces children are in their schools, she adds.

Mrs MacLeod has been seconded by the education directors' body ADES to work as a national transitions officer and will seek to smooth the frequent moves children make. "We need to get local authorities talking to each other," she says.

Another problem is that families who move from outside Scotland and are not familiar with the Scottish concept of additional support needs - as opposed to the narrower idea of special needs in other parts of the UK - are wary of being offered extra help.

"ASN is not something we should shy away from as armed forces families - it is a right," says Mrs MacLeod.

On several counts, Scotland is doing well by forces children. Brigadier Paul Harkness - whose roles have included chief of operations for General David Petraeus in Kabul - told the conference that he had been impressed by the adaptability of Curriculum for Excellence to individual circumstances, describing it as a "much better system" than in England.

He talked of the "incredible support" for forces families from the Scottish government, which last September published a wide-ranging document on how it would help the armed forces community. A section on education made a formal commitment to finding "solutions to the additional challenges that children of service families may face in accessing the curriculum (owing to) the nature of their parents' postings in the armed forces".

Scotland has also done particularly well in securing grants from an annual UK-wide pound;3 million fund from the MoD, running from 2011 until 2014, to help state schools to mitigate the impact of upheaval caused by defence cuts. High-quality applications from Scottish schools have helped to secure disproportionately high sums north of the border. Mauricewood Primary in Penicuik, in Midlothian, for example, was awarded nearly pound;50,000 to help forces children - about a third of the school roll - make up big deficits in reading age in a matter of months.

But there is much room for improvement in Scotland. Conference discussions highlighted the importance of upping the game of local authorities which are not steeped in the armed forces; of having specific plans for forces children and getting better at sharing information. Improving children's "emotional resilience" is also believed to be crucial - a number of delegates said that the hardest part of constant moving was leaving friends behind.

And more problems lie ahead. John McLaughlin, Fife education officer and ADES representative for armed forces families, made that clear when he rounded off the conference. The MoD's pound;3 million annual fund will be offered for the last time in 2014. But in 2015, northeast Fife, one of the Scottish communities most closely associated with the armed forces, will be in the midst of unprecedented - but as yet unquantifiable - turnover of military personnel.

"Two years from now, we'll have lots of people moving in and out," says Mr McLaughlin. "Schools will need support from somewhere."


3 - The number of Scotland's 32 local authorities thought to have put in place formal arrangements to track the number of armed forces children in their schools.

18 months - The typical length of time one headteacher said a forces child would spend at her school.

pound;700K - The proportion awarded to Scottish projects, in 2012, of an annual pound;3 million UK-wide MoD fund for state schools affected by changes to the military.

94 - The number of new pupils who enrolled last summer at Kinloss Primary, next to the RAF base, which is being taken over by the Army.

All figures cited at an ADES conference held in Stirling on 21 May: "Supporting Children and Young People of Armed Forces Families in Scottish Schools"


There was an angry reaction when army personnel at Waterbeach Barracks in Cambridgeshire learned that they would be relocated to the former RAF Kinloss base in the north of Scotland. A Facebook anti-Kinloss campaign fuelled the opposition, and when a Scottish delegation flew south to meet parents, they knew they had a job on their hands.

Kinloss headteacher Robert Hair (pictured) recalls that a number of myths were doing the rounds: passports were needed for Scotland; there was an 8pm curfew on electricity use. But a presentation to parents in a local cinema quelled concerns and parents heard from Waterbeach teaching staff that children who had moved the opposite way, from Kinloss, had arrived with a higher educational level than their peers.

A batch of children from Waterbeach was due to start at Kinloss Primary (pictured) in August 2012, but just before the start of term it was unclear how many would be arriving. The best estimate was 60, and the school opened a week early to process all the new arrivals; in fact, the school got 94 new pupils.

The schools made a commitment to assess children as they arrived, using the InCAS system. But pupil files from Waterbeach did not arrive until after the October holidays and the flow of information between army families' new and old homes continues to be erratic. Last month, the school was still getting emails requesting information about children missing from education in Cambridgeshire.

The school has been helped by money allocated to the Forres Academy area from the MoD's pound;3 million fund for state schools affected by upheaval in the armed forces, used to create the temporary posts of project worker and liaison teacher.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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