'You'll never be alone here'

There may be uniforms and parades, but Nick Morrison discovers this military school near the White Cliffs of Dover is really one big happy family.

It has dormitories, its own chapel, weekly parades with pupils in military uniform and is set in 150 acres of parkland. It could be any one of dozens of boarding schools across the country but the children aren't here because their parents want to buy a privileged education, or are keen to carry on the family tradition. They come here because they have to.

This is the Duke of York's Royal Military School, more snappily known as DYRMS. Perched on a hill outside Dover, just a stone's throw from the White Cliffs, it is one of just two schools of its kind in the country.

While 37 schools around the world provide an education for the primary-age children of UK servicemen posted abroad, the only equivalent secondary schools are in Germany and Cyprus. For servicemen posted elsewhere, DYRMS, along with the Queen Victoria School in Dunblane, near Stirling, is often the only option. The 500 pupils are boarders and all are the children of either serving or former members of the Armed Forces.

"For me, a big attraction is the nature of our parents," says John Cummings, headmaster at DYRMS since 1999. "There's a real need for boarding. It's not that we have affluent parents; it is not a convenient step."

Most pupils and their parents have had no previous boarding experience.

Life in the forces means they will have gone to an average of six schools by the time they arrive in Dover. The school is an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence and fees are subsidised. Serving personnel pay pound;550 a term; for those no longer serving, fees are pound;2,275 a term.

The military link is evident. The school has a military band, Combined Cadet Force (CCF) exercises are timetabled every Friday afternoon, and for Sunday parades, pupils don a ceremonial uniform similar to that worn by officer cadets at Sandhurst.

John says it is not an "army-barmy" school. "The military tag is very much that they have service parents. They are proud of what their parents do but it is not something we ram down their throats. It is a small side of school life but it is a side pupils cherish."

As well as a commitment to the boarding way of life, with all the extra-curricular activity this involves, staff are also expected to have an understanding of life in the Armed Forces. About three-quarters of staff have a direct link with the services.

Martin Ray had been a Royal Navy officer for eight years before retraining as a teacher. But after three years in the state sector he became disillusioned and also had qualms about working in an independent school.

"I didn't want to just teach wealthy children, I wanted to teach youngsters from a mix of backgrounds and that seemed to be unique to here," he says.

"I had been deployed operationally three times in my career, I had seen the effect it can have on family environments and was keen to give a bit back."

Martin, 35, joined DYRMS as a maths teacher in January and says he has been surprised the service connection is not more apparent. "I expected it be more military in how the day was run but it was not like that at all.

The pupils do what they do because they want to do it," he adds.

Far from having a military connection, Annabel Jones, 24, had endured CCF when she was at school. "I hated it. I hated dressing up, although I love looking at parades," she says. With a background as a day boarder - at school from 7.45am to 10.30pm - she had been keen to work in the independent sector and is now an NQT, teaching drama.

As deputy housemistress of one of the four girls' houses, she lives at the school. "I have the experience the children have and there are quite a few young teachers who live on site," she says. "It's also a big weight off your mind that you've got somewhere to live. To see a job with accommodation provided was an extra bonus."

Part of the job is dealing with children whose parent is on an operational posting. "We've just had two 12-year-olds whose dads have gone to Afghanistan. They said they would write their emails together," Annabel says. "They're good at taking care of each other. One of them might come and say: 'So and so is feeling blue but I'm looking after him'."

The extent of British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan means staff have also been faced with supporting children whose parent has been killed or injured on duty. Steven Saunderson, 41, a history teacher at DYRMS for 19 years, says an incident plan is invoked whenever there is a casualty among the parents. "During the first Gulf War, we were initially quite sensitive to what was in the news but in the end, we took the decision to leave the television on with the news rolling. It was an anxious time but the first port of call for the children was their fellow pupils," Steven says. "If somebody's father is injured or there is a bereavement, it is a matter of supporting them until they can get home."

Caroline Dyer is now in her ninth year at DYRMS. She says the children's common experience bolsters the support network, easing the experience of being away from home. "Somebody will talk about Cyprus and three-quarters of them will have lived or be living in Cyprus," she says.

"It is that link which is so important. It is what they have in common, the fact they all know the same areas. They have shared experiences and shared culture and it doesn't matter what age they are, they come here and they fit in. It means that when something happens, we have got the most incredible back-up system."

Caroline, 43, worked as a surveyor before starting a family and deciding to go into teaching. Like many staff at DYRMS, she has a strong military link - her husband Paul was in the Navy.

"There is a sense of participation here and opportunities to develop," says Caroline, who runs the signals platoon in the school's CCF. She admits that when she arrived, she was anxious about living on site next door to other teachers. But like the pupils, the teachers gain from a shared livingexperience. "We do the same things and that makes a difference," she says. "You'll never be alone if you're part of this - it's like a family."

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