Last week was very much RAF week. On the Monday morning I began the working week with a visit to Halton Primary School, just outside Wendover. About three quarters of the children who go to Halton are from RAF families. This causes a number of challenges for the school. For a start, fathers (and in these days mothers too) can be posted at very short notice, meaning frequent family moves. The headteacher told me that she had lost about 10 children in December 2009 as a result of postings. She knew that, given the law of averages, they would probably be replaced by a similar number of children from RAF families newly posted into Halton but the problem she faced was that the census date for schools, the date at which pupil numbers are used to calculate a school’s budget entitlement, fell in January while those school places were still vacant. The school therefore faced an immediate budget shortfall and would soon have to take on new pupils without the funding being available to support them.
Not surprisingly, service children often end up passing through a number of different state schools in a very short space of time. At Halton School, they can be taking in boys and girls who have perhaps attended three or four different primary schools in as many years. You can imagine the dislocation which those moves cause to a child’s education. Sometimes, a child might miss one part of the curriculum entirely because different schools teach it at a different point in a particular academic year.
For children with special educational needs, it is not always straightforward to ensure that an assessment and the resources to support particular forms of assistance are transferred from one education authority or one school to another. It’s hard enough to make this happen within England. When a child moves in to Bucks from Scotland, Northern Ireland or from an RAF station overseas, the problems can be worse. I am going to take this point up with education ministers.
But it wasn’t all bad news. The reason that the school invited me to visit them was to help celebrate their success in obtaining recognition of be special demands placed on them by the large number of service children at Halton. Bucks County Council has agreed to pay an additional sum of money per pupil to Halton School and to Walters Ash School ( which serves RAF High Wycombe). Musician, Paulton school has been able to secure funding from a number of different sources for a mobility officer to provide support to service children and ensure that information about their school records and their educational needs has been properly collated. Academic standards at Halton School are on the up and be staff and governors seemed enthusiastic and very determined to improve the school’s reputation further.
Two days later, I was in Walters Ash. Not to visit the school but to spend a couple of hours at RAF High Wycombe. I first called on Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Moran, commander-in-chief of Air Command. We chatted about the role of the RAF in our defence policy, Afghanistan and nuclear deterrence. Whichever political party forms the government after the next general election will need to undertake an urgent and thorough review not just of Britain’s defence but of our broader national security strategy. It seems to me to be essential that we do a great deal more to integrate our defence, diplomatic and development policies and so that once the government collectively has agreed on a particular policy, every minister knows what they are signed up to and what their department is expected to provide. We should never make foreign policy commitments about the deployment of British forces unless we are willing to ensure that the service men and women concerned are properly equipped and kitted out for that task.
I then went down the road for a meeting with group Captain Tony Radcliffe, station commander of RAF High Wycombe. I suspect that he has more very senior officers on his station then any other RAF local commander! We talked about the integration of civilian and contracted staff with uniformed personnel, about service housing and social and recreational facilities. It was good to hear that some of the rather dilapidated service quarters have been done up but disappointing to learn that the station’s antiquated gym still hasn’t been replaced. I remember this being raised with me as an issue by RAF personnel more than 10 years ago. Of course they problem is that when money is tight all three services, quite naturally and rightly, give priority to the people in the front line ahead of those back home.
Despite all the budgetary pressures, what impresses me every time I talk to the RAF (and I am sure that this applies in the other two services as well) is their can do attitude. Officers and other ranks are usually pretty straight with me over what’s going wrong but they then work on the basis that while they might want certain things to change they will also do their utmost to make the best of the circumstances in which they find themselves. It’s a pretty good principle by which to live.