Dr Grace Clifton, staff tutor in education at the Open University, has been researching the educational experience of army children attending secondary schools in the UK since 2002. She presents her findings and resulting theories and recommendations below. To read the abstract outlining her research and findings, click here.
'Since 2002, I have been carrying out research into the experience of education of army children attending secondary schools in the UK. This emerged from my own experiences as an army wife and as a secondary-school teacher. The research involved spending over a year in a secondary school located near an army garrison in the south of England, carrying out in-depth observations and interviews with four focus children, as well as their parents, teachers and headteacher. In order to corroborate their evidence, I also interviewed local army and education officials, as well as people with an interest in the subject at a national level, such as the AFF [Army Families Federation] education specialist. These findings were compared to a second school in the east of England, also located near an army garrison.

By the age of eleven, all of the children had attended at least four schools, including schools in other nation states of the UK, as well as within the SCE [Service Children's Education schools] in Germany. This level of mobility was something that the children seemed to neutralise, not wanting to talk about how painful a move might be. Nor were they able to take ownership of any of the schools that they had attended, talking in terms of "the school" rather than "my school". In lessons, I did not feel that the children were "active" learners, preferring not to engage directly with their teachers and asking friends for help instead.

Their friendships were defined by fluidity and change, with the girls maintaining friends outside of the army structure, whilst the boys had friends from other army families (particularly from the same regiment as their fathers). The army had a very strong influence on all of the children--most notably when, for two of the children, their fathers were sent on tours of duty to Iraq. During this time, these children worried about their fathers and, most significantly, about the effect his absence would have on their mother. Consequently, school work took second place to coping with their father's absence.

The families of these children were able to give them varying levels of support. The serving soldiers were rarely able to attend school events due to work commitments. The most involved mother, from the sample, worked within childcare and was, therefore, I felt, more comfortable with contacting education professionals and negotiating on her child's behalf. For the other mothers, their own experiences of school had not been so good and this, together with earlier difficulties in their children's education and their own difficulties coping with mobility and the absence of their husband, had led them to take a less proactive stance towards their children's schools and teachers.

All of the parents had employed similar means of choosing a school for their children--they relied heavily on "word of mouth" and chose the school nearest to their quarter for their child (if that school had an available place!) Some of the parents were not able to visit the school before registering their child. For all of the parents involved, boarding school was not an option--not for financial reasons but because they all felt that children should be with their parents and not sent away.

Teachers in both schools described the difficulties they faced working in "service" schools. These included receiving new students who had no files or, at the very least, files with significant gaps in them. Students had often studied different areas of the National Curriculum and, at Key Stage Four in particular, this led to acute difficulties.

Funding issues did not help schools to support army children effectively, with funding for new students often arriving well after that student had joined a new school. Education professionals repeatedly mentioned concerns that mobility was having a negative impact on children's attainment--and whilst the link between mobility and attainment is difficult to make, within the small group of focus children involved in this research, all of the children had lower than average literacy levels. Concerns were also raised that there may be higher incidences of special educational needs in army children. My feeling was that schools did not really understand the army "culture" and that this led to misunderstandings between teachers and army students and their parents. Similarly, local army officials did not realise the extent to which their way of life impacted on the ability of schools to do their work, and links between schools and the army were often weak.

I concluded that there were five theories to emerge from this research.
  • Firstly, army children developed individual coping strategies to help them negotiate their time at school. Social coping strategies involved not getting too close to their friends and "letting go" of them when they knew they had to move on. Outside of school, all of the children developed a very strong bond with their mother as she was the constant presence at home. Academic coping strategies involved not taking responsibility for one's own work and maintaining a "low profile" in the classroom. The implications of these coping strategies are clear--they help these children to "get by" at school, although they didn't necessarily thrive there.
  • Secondly, I felt that mobility both directly and indirectly affected the educational experiences of army children. Relationships with teachers and friends, described above, were most affected. However, mobility also meant that parents were unlikely to know about local schools and, in the run-up to moving quarter, were not able to support their children at school due to the sheer energy involved in moving house. Mobility was also seen to affect the delivery of the curriculum in schools and the way that schools in highly mobile areas were funded. I felt that mobility had a particular impact on the development of a child's literacy skills since other research has indicated that literacy and self-esteem issues are interlinked.
  • The third theory to emerge from this research, as I have indicated above, was that there was a clash of cultures between the army and schools. The world of the army, involving its own particular brand of language and traditions, was misunderstood by schools and, as such, the lifestyle of the army children was not fully appreciated by teachers.
  • Fourthly, the culture of the home was seen to have a particular effect on the educational experiences of army children as these children had to negotiate mobility, the exigencies of army life and the absence of their parents.
  • Finally, bringing together all of these theories, I felt that neither the army nor schools really understood the experiences of education of army children. As a result, I felt that these children were expected to integrate into local schools rather than being actively included in them.

I do feel that making broad-reaching recommendations from such a small-scale study, albeit in-depth and at doctoral level, is not possible. However, I feel that there are things that I hope that army parents can learn from this. I would urge all parents to ask for further clarification of the syllabus and curriculum requirements from schools so that you can help your child to work out what they have already covered and what they may need additional support with before you move to another posting. When you know you are going to move, let your child's school know as soon as possible and start thinking about a new school. Ask around, but also find out from other sources about education in your new posting area. Ofsted, for example, has an excellent website, which can help you to make choices. At every stage of a move, involve your child--talk to them about where you're going to go, involve them in the decision about what school to go to next. Finally, find out how you, or your partner, can get involved in school life because it's only through informal links like this that schools might understand the army lifestyle a bit more and, in doing so, be able to support your children a bit better.

Since completing my PhD, I continue to be involved in working for better understanding of the educational experience of army children.

Finally, to the four families involved in my research, another big thank-you and please know that you really have helped to highlight this issue.'
Dr Grace Clifton, the Open University.
[© Dr Grace Clifton, 2008; not to be quoted without the author's permission; TACA is grateful for her permission to do so.]