Richmond School & Sixth Form College is located just around the corner from Catterick Garrison, so the school knows a thing or two about supporting service children. Stephen Birdsall, the school’s Services Children’s Advocate, sat down with us to tell us about the great things Richmond School is doing to support and inspire its 160 military teens – some of whom recently attended the Little Troopers All Together residential weekend.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be a teacher.
My teaching journey began in 2015 when I started work at my old secondary school. I’ve now been at Richmond School and Sixth Form College for nearly seven years. I’m an English and Drama teacher and I’ve recently been appointed as the school and college’s Services Children’s Advocate.
How many military children are there in your school?
Neighbouring the largest British Army garrison in the world (Catterick Garrison) we currently have 160 military students on roll and this is ever growing.
Why do you think it’s important to offer targeted support for military children in school?
Providing targeted support for military students is majorly important. I feel military pupils are a vulnerable group, often forgotten, with constant changes in their lives. Some military students have two parents/carers in the forces who could be deployed at any time.
It is really important that there is adequate support for military students if needed. Support can come in many forms from academic/pastoral care to service events and activities where they can socialise with other military students. It is also highly important staff are aware of the issues and challenges that military students can face.
A new strategy we have implemented is a ‘Notification of Deployment’ form. This allows me, the Head of Year, form tutors and relevant teaching staff to be informed so that we can provide immediate support or communication where needed. Staff knowing about a deployment helps to provide extra comfort and open up conversations to help settle them.
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges faced by military children in school? Have these challenges changed during your time as a teacher?
One of the biggest challenges I find military students face is making friendships. Due to the constant change in their lives and people coming and going, I find students struggle to make meaningful friendships to avoid upset/ heartache in case they are relocated again. I don’t think this has changed in my time working at a school, however, I do feel we are more aware and equipped to help support the challenge with this group of students.
How does your school support forces’ families?
There is extensive academic and pastoral support for military students at Richmond School and Sixth Form College. This especially comes into play when parents/carers are on deployment, when students are struggling with settling in or if they have curriculum gaps. Military students who join part way through the academic year are buddied up with other military students and we also encourage students to take part in our extra-curricular provision. In addition, we prioritise military students when it comes to careers advice, educational visits, revision guidance and exam wellbeing support. Military students also get access to Ivy House, which is a leadership programme and take part in the Brilliant Club.
We try to take part in as many activities for military students as possible. A number of our students recently attended the Little Troopers All Together residential trip and we are part of Reading Force, which involves students reading the same book as a deployed parent and completing scrap books together.
What initiatives or projects have worked particularly well?
Every year we work with York St John to send military students on its Inspiring Choices Summer School. The Year 10s and 11s really enjoy this as it helps them gain an understanding about higher education and university life.
Our younger military students particularly enjoy the art and crafts sessions we get involved in, such as the annual ‘Never Such Innocence Remembrance Art Workshops.’ Military students also enjoy the participation in the ‘Ripon Cathedral Service to Remember’ Remembrance Service along with our local Richmond Town service where we lay wreaths on behalf of the school and college.
I’m also planning to introduce a Forces Life Club at the school and college using the Little Troopers Forces Life Club Pack. The club will be somewhere we can create a safe, relaxed environment for service children to meet and socialise. I would also like to use the group to raise awareness and fundraise for charities and get involved in the military events in the local area.
Several children from the school attended the Little Troopers All Together residential break. Can you tell us what you think the students got from the weekend?
The students who attended the All Together residential to Marrick Priory had an amazing time. They were grinning from ear-to-ear when I picked them up! It was a great opportunity for them to meet others from outside their own social network and many of them gained new friends for life. Being able to spend quality time with like-minded service students who also go through the same challenges as themselves was invaluable. It helped them to know they are not alone and gave them the chance to reflect and learn new ways to cope with the uncertainty and change that they face. There was a great buzz about the students who attended the residential when they returned to school and I know it was an experience they will remember for years to come.
What’s the one thing you think is most important for schools to do for forces children?
Listen, listening is so important. Listening allows a military student to have a voice and feel acknowledged and heard. Providing an opportunity for military students to be heard allows them to chat, offload or seek advice from a trusted adult. It is important that they feel school staff are listening to them and are aware of their ever-changing uncertainty and upheaval.
What advice would you offer to other teachers and schools working with military children?
Listen to the needs of your military students, what do they need and want from you? Also speak to the parents/carers of military students and offer any support and guidance there. Provide military students with opportunities to use their strengths and knowledge of the wider world and the experiences they have gained through being a service child. Being a military student is not all negative.