Drawings of service children’s families. 2019. [Collated drawings]. Taken from the research conducted by the author: Robinson, L. (2019). Service children: a case study exploring their educational experience and the use of the Service Pupil Premium. [Master’s thesis]. University of Cambridge

Lucy Robinson, DPhil student, Department of Education, University of Oxford.

Humans love to categorise and label; to provide order to an otherwise chaotic world. Within the field of education, children are no exception. In the English education system, a multitude of categories exist to classify children; often with the purpose to drive outcome-focused data. Children are typically categorised by gender, age and perceived academic ability in addition to categories linked to their family backgrounds such as English as an additional language (EAL) and Free School Meals (FSM) recipients.

As part of the Department of Education’s (DfE) commitment to delivering the Armed Forces Covenant, since 2011, English schools have had a new label to use – ‘service child’. Although definitions vary across organisations, the DfE defines a service child as a child who is currently in the school years of Reception to Year 11 and who fulfils one of the following criteria:

  • “one of their parents is serving in the regular armed forces (including pupils with a parent who is on full commitment as part of the full time reserve service)
  • they have been registered as a ‘service child’ on a school census since 2016
  • one of their parents died whilst serving in the armed forces and the pupil receives a pension under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme or the War Pensions Scheme” (MoD, 2021).

Once a child is identified using this label, the school is then able to claim the Service Pupil Premium (SPP) on their behalf. The funding currently amounts to £310 per pupil, per year and is designed so that “eligible schools...can offer mainly pastoral support during challenging times and to help mitigate the negative impact on service children of family mobility or parental deployment (MoD, 2021).” Most recent figures state that 79,343 children are in receipt of the funding for the school year 2020-21 (Education and Skills Funding Agency, 2020). This in turn is used as proxy measure for the number of service children currently being educated in English state schools. However, this is likely to be an under-estimate due to lack of parental awareness of the funding or hesitancy of the serving personnel to declare their link to the Armed Forces.

Whilst the SPP is arguably an imperfect and controversial funding model, its introduction has significantly impacted on how English state schools ‘see’ their service children. Although visibility in schools is an important step forward, the SPP is, in one respect, a crude badge of identification. Schools are not required to note down further information in relation to the child’s link to the services (for example service type, category of service or rank) and if done so, this data is not published. This means that insights into service children at anything beyond individual school level remain partial. As a result of this, service children are often categorised into one homogenous mass and their complex service identities are rarely attended to. In turn, this can cause misleading and inaccurate assumptions around their experiences and educational needs.
To disrupt this over-simplification, it is important to bring attention to the diversity of children labelled by the term ‘service child’ by considering the individual child’s characteristics before thinking more broadly about their place within their military family unit.

Let us begin with the child. By using the ‘service child’ label, schools identify service children by virtue of their parent’s occupation. This can demarcate their identity and experience within the parameters of service life whilst other aspects of their identity remain hidden in the background. Service children, like all children, are unique. They have their own thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes, passions and dreams; sometimes they seek to follow in the footsteps of their serving parent or carer, others look to follow different paths. Service children have their own strengths and challenges – in the classroom, on the playground and outside the educational sphere. Their emotional responses to events and experiences, both military related and not, are on a spectrum and often subject to change over time. Within schools, intersectionality of other identities and labels such as EAL or Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) can occur alongside more informal constructions of identity such as ‘the sporty one’ or ‘the bookworm’. Being a ‘service child’ is an important part, but only one part, of service children’s multifaceted identities.

Broadening to the family unit, service children are part of every kind of family; nuclear, extended, blended and single parent households. Their service parent, or parents, experiences of the services vary hugely which in turn impacts on service children’s life experiences. Differences across the services, ranks, regiments, duration and category of service and currently serving or veteran status, are all factors which significantly impact upon a serving person’s experience of mobility and deployment and by extension, the experience of their children.
Upon arrival into an English state school, service children may have previously attended MoD schools abroad, local schools in their host countries, private schools based in the UK or may have experienced a stint of home schooling. They may be open and frank about their links to the Armed Forces or prefer to not share. They may live in service accommodation amongst other service children or in private housing situated away from the garrison, base or port. Some service children are young carers, others may be bereaved.

Although not covered by the Department of Education’s definition of ‘service child’, other children may also feel affinity to this label. Those who perhaps have a sibling or other, non-parental relative in the services or a parent working as a contractor or civilian in a military environment or employed as a part-time Reservist alongside another non-military occupation.
This multitude of identifiers and factors listed above are by no means a comprehensive list. However, the breath of potentiality of difference encompassed by the term ‘service child’ suggests a need for a more nuanced model. Perhaps there is scope for the SPP to become a sharper tool; both in the identification and contextualisation of service children and in the application of use? Such a change could lessen the assumed homogeneity of service children, develop a greater understanding into the diversities of their identities and experiences and provide more tailored support to this unique group of children.


Education and Skills Funding Agency, Pupil premium: allocations and conditions of grant 2020 to 2021. Retrieved April 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupil-premium-allocations-and-conditions-of-grant-2020-to-2021

MoD, Service Pupil Premium: what you need to know. Retrieved April 2021, from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-service-pupil-premium/service-pupil-premium-what-you-need-to-know