With parents away from home for months at a time and regular relocations within the UK and abroad, being a child growing up in a military family isn’t easy.
But a Rutland school is leading the way in terms of specialist teaching for forces children – ensuring they have all the support required to fulfil their potential.
The Cottesmore Millfield Academy, which currently has 187 children on its register, is located inside the army’s Kendrew Barracks base – formerly RAF Cottesmore – and the majority of its pupils are from forces families.
Headteacher Rachel Thomas, who took over at the start of the academic year, knows more than most about how to get the best out of children like these.
Before moving to Cottesmore, she had spent the previous four years working as headteacher at Dhekelia Primary School – which sits on an British Army base in Cyprus. Prior to that she was the deputy headteacher at a school on a British base in Germany.
Her goal as headteacher is to ensure each and every one of her pupils gets the support they need to thrive in difficult circumstances.
Rachel said: “As a services school, we have unique challenges to deal with which others don’t. Our pupils often have a parent serving away from home for extended periods of time, which can be difficult for them to deal with emotionally. And when personnel are posted elsewhere – either within the UK or abroad – the family goes with them and that can mean regular changes of school and having to start over with making friends and settling in.
“What this means is we have a unique group of children with unique needs. Our pupils have a lot of challenges, but that’s not to say they can’t achieve. Empathy is great, but not at the cost of lower expectations. We are passionate about getting the best out of everyone. What we try and do is keep a sense of normality. We want the children to feel settled and at home here.”
The school has a ‘Bluey Club’ – named after forces aerogrammes known as Blueys – where pupils can get together and write letters and draw pictures for parents on active service. These are sent overseas, for free, by the British Forces Post Office. They can also make keepsakes, share memories and feel valued.
The school also works with an educational psychologist to help pupils work on their resilience and ability to deal with stressful situations.
Rachel, a married 39-year-old who hails from Sussex and now lives in Market Overton, spent some of her own childhood in a forces school in Gibraltar.
She said: “My dad, Brian Thomas, was a deputy head at a school on a base in Gibraltar. We moved there as a family when I was seven and returned to UK when I was 13 and in the second year of secondary school. Changing school at that time was not easy so I know what many of my pupils now are feeling when, after two or three years in once place, they move on and start a new life at a new school and a new home.”
After training as a teacher and working in a number of schools in West Sussex, Rachel started thinking about management roles and decided she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and applied for a job in Germany.
She added: “My dad is my inspiration. I’ve seen first hand the challenges of growing up in a forces school, but also the impact great teachers can have.
“Rutland has many, many forces families living in it. We can be leaders in providing expertly tailored education for these children and I plan to work closely with similar schools in the area as we move forwards.
“It’s not easy being a forces child, but it’s not impossible either. Because of the lives they have lived, we find that our pupils are particularly compassionate and welcoming to newcomers.”