Education in action

Grace Clifton considers the educational challenges facing children in military families.

An anxious student holding her head in her hands while studyingIn the UK there are estimated to be well over 100,000 children from a military background, including children with parents in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force. These children are faced with several unique situations – the absence of their (serving) parent, the impact of moving home and school regularly, and the possibility of bereavement and parental injury1. It is not surprising that this can lead to emotional and behavioural difficulties which may have an impact on a child’s performance at school.

On the move

An army child is likely to move home and school on average every eighteen months to two years (with longer periods of stability for children with parents in the RAF and Navy). Some children will move school half a dozen times or more before reaching their teens2.  Not only does this involve disruption and change in a child’s studies, with all the ensuing assessment and administrative burden, but, over time, a service child may develop certain behaviours or coping strategies to deal with the constant change.

For example, children may not make lasting ‘learning relationships’ with their teachers, and can visibly withdraw from friends and teachers when they know that they are about to be posted elsewhere. Added to the emotional difficulties faced by service children when their (serving) parent is deployed on often high-profile tours of duty, a child’s experience of education can be affected. For schools, a highly mobile student body can create problems in teaching the curriculum, maintaining student records, and having suitable finance in place to accommodate a fluctuating student population.

Mobility and assessment

The negative impact of high mobility is more acute for service children at Key Stage 4, when they may be forced to switch exam boards or fulfil the educational requirements of a different Nation State in the UK. My own research contained one particularly poignant interview with the Head of Key Stage 4 at a state school with a considerable number of service children on roll. He said, ‘you almost write them off. You know you put them in a class but they can’t do well because there’s no time for them to do the coursework that they’ve missed.’

Set against a backdrop of coping strategies that deter such students from engaging with teaching staff, even a teacher’s very best efforts may fail to drum up the necessary motivation in a student to help them catch up on crucial work that they need to do to fulfil a new exam board’s requirements.

So, is the educational experience of the service child all doom and gloom? Provided that local authorities in areas with large populations of service personnel can work with the Ministry of Defence to improve communication and reduce the number of postings at key times, thus taking into account the needs of the wider service family, then things should improve. Recent initiatives to increase funding for service children in schools (the Pupil Premium) should also help schools to organise support for service children.

Grace Clifton is a lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at the Centre for Childhood, Development and Learning, The Open University.

  1. Royal Navy and Royal Marine Children’s Fund (RNRMCF), 2009, The Overlooked Casualties of Conflict [PDF], Portsmouth, RNRMCF. Retrieved 25 February 2013.
  2. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO), 2006, Defence Select Committee Report – Educating Service Children [PDF], HC1054, London. Retrieved 25 February 2013.
  3. Department for Education (DfE), 2010, The Educational Performance of Children of Service Personnel [PDF], Research Report DFE-RR011. Retrieved 25 February 2013.
  4. Clifton, G. 2007, The Experience of Education of the Army Child, unpublished doctoral thesis, Oxford Brookes University. Retrieved 25 February 2013.


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