‘Positive forces’

'As an unusually sunny summer term winds to a close at Queen Victoria school in Stirlingshire, punctuated by band practice, sports days and preparation for a ceremony to be attended by Princess Anne, the only cloud on the horizon is the dangers facing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For all 280 boarders at this secluded spot, set in 45 acres of greenery, are the children of men and women in the services, many serving overseas.

Some pupils crowd around common-room TV sets each night to watch the news; others flick through the selection of daily papers laid out each morning. Some avoid the news altogether, preferring ignorance to worry.

Seventeen-year-old Ashley Hughes says: “I find the media so negative. Our families are doing the job as best they can but what they are doing is not appreciated.”

Her father has done two tours of duty in Iraq over the past couple of years. When he is away, the time lag between hearing about an incident involving his regiment, the Black Watch, which has lost seven soldiers in Iraq, and hearing who is involved is particularly hard. “It is my father and all his friends. I know a lot of people in the regiment, I know their children.”

Housemistress Catriona Matheson recalls the last time news broke that a soldier from a Scottish regiment had been killed. “We had a meeting and we talked about it. Yes, there were tears, because some of them knew him and they knew his children. We made a card and sent off a package to the family because that is what they wanted to do.”

But although daily briefings and support meetings are provided in times of intense conflict, in the main the school’s approach is to keep things as normal as possible. “You can’t keep up that level of intensity for very long,” says the headteacher, Brian Raine. “If you do, you risk almost adding to the situation.”

This approach is supported by psychology professor Patrick O’Donnell, of Glasgow University. He says there is growing evidence that most people can cope with trauma and bereavement without intervention.

“The very worst thing a school could do would be to sit the children down and say, your parents are in a dangerous situation and we are going to talk about how you will cope if anything happens to them, and offer them some sort of prophylactic counselling.

“Most people have a natural resilience and part of that is optimism, part of that is denial. There is also evidence that giving people counselling directly after a traumatic event is not helpful and for some people it may even be harmful because it interferes with their natural protection mechanisms.” More vulnerable people may need a different approach, he adds.

In general, the atmosphere of the school is stoical and cheerful.

Graham Carroll, the deputy head, has been a teacher at the school for 30 years. The old boys (the school went co-ed in 1996), he says, think the regime now is “soft”. “But it hasn’t got softer, it has got warmer.”

Aside from its Victorian, ivy-covered facade and its large grounds, the school’s exterior looks more like a sprawling municipal library than a posh boarding school. Inside, the juniors’ four-bed rooms have trainers, guitars and cuddly toys lying around.

The school was originally set up by Scottish soldiers donating a day’s pay to create a school for the orphaned children of the non-officers killed in the Boer war. It claims among its former pupils the once legendary Manchester United striker Charlie Mitten, who apparently attributed his ball skills to the rigours of Highland dancing.

Sadly, the school community recently suffered the loss of one old boy, Gordon Pritchard, the 100th soldier to die in Iraq, and the severe injury of another, Kevin Stacey.

The armed forces run two boarding schools in the UK, QVS and the Duke of York’s in Dover, and the MoD pays the fees for 8,000 further boarders in private schools. It runs 43 schools at bases abroad but most are primaries. Forces parents tend to turn to boarding because they move around so much.

For most families, it is a difficult decision, says Matheson. “A big part of our job is supporting the parents. The children are busy and they don’t miss the parent as much as that parent often misses them. But the parents can see that what the children get from being here is continuity and stability, and that they have an opportunity to make very strong friendships, which will last into their adult lives.”

Caroline Leith, 18, whose father is currently in Afghanistan, agrees. “In my last school I was the only one who had a father in the forces. No one understood what it was like.” The long absences are easier, too. “I wouldn’t be seeing him anyway, even if he was home. When you are at home, having a parent away for six months is a very long time.”

Leith and Hughes explain the practicalities during the period of duty. “You can’t speak to them for ages. You can send an e-blueie (an official MoD communication form) but you can’t talk about the situation and they can’t give details of their situation. You can’t ask questions, they just want to hear how you are getting on.”

The chaplain, John Silcox, says: “Supporting the children emotionally is a big part of what we do. I have been the chaplain here for 21 years and there has always been a conflict going on. We are familiar with what is expected of people in the services and it is very demanding. When a parent is sent away to Iraq or Afghanistan for six months, of course, the youngsters think about it very deeply.

“They tend not to worry too much about the politics of the situation, it is more if their dad or mum is going to be safe. We can’t say they will be. They wouldn’t believe us. But what we can say is they are there with all their friends, they are all looking out for each other and doing a job they have been well trained for, and that what they want their child to do is to get on with life as calmly as they can.”

Where there is loss or serious injury, whether through war or the more usual illness and accidents, Silcox says: “The children always want to come back to school at some point because that is where their friends are. A group of friends often gathers round, and I think that if you can get some young people to act as supporters, then they will do it better than anyone else, because young people respond best to other young people.”

The Guardian
June 20h 2006

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