For all the glossy pictures and impressive looking facilities, for military families in particular, it is what you don’t see in the school brochures and prospectuses that is perhaps most important.
Forces’ families make up a very significant proportion of the parent population in many UK Independent schools, but how many really get the support that they need? Yes schools might SAY they welcome Forces’ families with open arms and they might make fine noises and lofty claims about ‘bespoke military offers’ and the like. Of course they do – they are not daft! Schools know that they are on to a good thing. Self-reliant, well disciplined and happy to get stuck in, by and large military children are exactly the type of children that housemasters or mistresses are desperate to have in their houses. For the most part, military children have the ability to get on with others, they take responsibility for themselves and are generally very low maintenance. On top of this there is the small issue of the guaranteed fee income they bring with them too, always paid on time – what’s not to like?
Don’t be fooled by covetous schools who make grand claims about their ‘military traditions’. Don’t’ be afraid to scratch beneath the veneer and find out whether they really will provide what you are looking for. Do they REALLY understand the specific needs of children whose parents are in the military or do they just say that they do in order to boost their numbers? Ask questions, seek advice and speak directly to those who have been on that journey before you – all schools are NOT the same.
Weekends are not a bad place to start. We all want to know that our children are happy and content and are leading busy and fulfilling lives. We want them to get the very most out of their schooling, being pushed just enough to develop their individual talents but not being pressured so they suffer melt down and mental health issues in their teens or even earlier. This delicate balance of work, rest and play requires skilful handling never more so than at weekends which can become long and lonely if your son or daughter is in the wrong school. Beware of the ‘Monday to Friday schools’. Although many may claim to have exciting ‘weekend activity programmes’, the truth is that schools where lessons end mid afternoon on Friday frequently empty at the weekends – teachers as well as the pupils. Far from providing a stimulating, exciting and varied programme of activities, such schools often become ghost towns at weekends, where bored pupils often rattle around their rooms with no more than a computer screen and ‘Call of Duty’ for company. ‘Monday to Friday schools’ can become a breeding ground for homesickness, unhappiness and discontent and sometimes bad behaviour too.
The best way to find out what really happens in schools at weekends is to go straight to the horse’s mouth and ask those who have been there. Ask the questions. When does the school week finish? What does a typical Saturday or Sunday look like at the school? How many staff are on site during the weekend? What activities are arranged for boarders on a Sunday? Don’t ask the school, ask the pupils who have been there – you may get some revealing answers!
Generally schools who have a history and track record of looking after Forces’ families are the safest bet. You only really get one chance and schools that suddenly burst on the scene with fancy ‘military offers’ are best treated with caution. Are they REALLY suited to the unique demands of Forces’ life or are they merely on a marketing push to boost numbers? Word of mouth is often the best gauge of a suitable school for your son or daughter and it is always wise to get the views of those who have been on that journey before you.
Of course we all want our children to mix with new people, have new experiences and have their eyes opened to new ideas and as such there is a careful balance to be had here. Schools whose pupils are predominantly from a Forces’ background, ‘military schools’ if you will can feel a little oppressive and are not right for some children. A school with a healthy mix of military and non-military families would seem to be ideal. Enough of a track record for prospective pupils to know and find out what the school is really about but enough diversity and difference for your son or daughter not to feel like they are living on a glorified military base.
Another key area to look at is a school’s pastoral structure as this is going to be critical for your children and of course for you. In the same way that you don’t want your son or daughter to be rattling round an empty school at weekends, so you don’t want to read about ‘fantastic pastoral care’, ‘caring staff’ etc only to be met with a brick wall (or even worse a stony silence) when you need help with transport to and from the airport or when POTL comes around. Schools with experience of looking after military families understand that the rhythms of Forces’ life can be different to those on Civvy Street and are happy to adapt and be flexible. Such schools find solutions not problems, they help remove obstacles not put up barriers and crucially their pastoral systems are designed to support you and your children and are not just there to tick a ‘military box’.
Similarly, the thorny issue of paying fees and negotiating the maze that is CEA, can be very different at different schools. Do schools’ Finance Departments understand this process and are they able to help? Are they willing and able to support you through this process or are you left to your own devices? Are lines of communication open and clear and critically does the school fully understand CEA? These are key questions that will quickly give you an idea of whether the school is right for your children.
Beware the fancy brochure, the generic claims and the lofty words. Seek advice from current families and above all don’t be afraid to ask the gnarly questions. As a military family you get one chance at this. Military life comes with enough pressure and stress as it is and you need to be sure that the school that you choose is able to support you and your child effectively. As George Orwell once said ‘ All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’!
For more information about what Taunton School offers military families click the links below:
Registrar at Taunton School