Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)


2 MAY 2006

  Q200  Chairman: We will come on to that.

  Brigadier Brister: They attend some local authority admission forums. We do all that we can to help with this schooling issue. What more could be done? would be your question, I would imagine.

  Chairman: Brigadier Brister, can we stick with the address issue, because it is a key issue. We will get into some of the other detail in a moment or two. Robert Key has a question on the address.

  Q201  Robert Key: Thank you, Chairman. Can you explain why it is not possible just to give a garrison address or, indeed, a unit address. Surely, even if you are coming from Germany or Cyprus you know where the garrison headquarters is, including its postcode, and it is not going to make that much difference in terms of a catchment area for a primary school in reality, is it?

  Brigadier Brister: Yes. The posting order tells you the unit, and therefore the garrison, to which you are going. But if you are posted, say, to Upavon, you could be accommodated in a number of areas, which would drive you towards very different primary schools which you would be seeking to send your children to. The area is a help, and it can start you off, but the address of where you will live remains particularly important.

  Q202  Robert Key: In an education authority like Wiltshire—and you mentioned Wiltshire, which I know about too from my constituency, where Wiltshire operates the service schools allowance system, which depends upon the number of service children going to a particular primary school—the flexibility is there within that system, I would have thought, for Wiltshire's Education Authority to be able to accommodate that flow of people in and out. It is a very imprecise art, and even when they know the address of a quarter that a family is going to there are still wide variations. I have been talking this morning to a headmaster in Tidworth who says it is a real problem for him: they have to guesstimate the numbers each year and they cannot know precisely either how much money is needed this year or the next year. Surely, is it not possible to come to a rather more refined arrangement with the local education authority?

  Brigadier Brister: I think we are moving on to the issue from the schools' perspective. Perhaps we could stay just for now with the parents' perspective. In terms of the parents and their choice of school and their ability to try to get their child to the school of their choice, then their particular home address that they will live at is of prime importance to them. If my quarter is in Tidworth, I will probably prefer to send my child to school in Tidworth even though I may be working at Upavon. If my quarter is at Upavon, I would probably prefer to send my child to a more local school. From the parental perspective, the quarter address is of key importance.

  Q203  Chairman: Let us suppose that you manage to keep the four months' notice of posting, I think the Defence Estates have a 15-day target to allocate an address.

  Brigadier Brister: Yes.

  Q204  Chairman: Which should surely mean that there are three and a half months of notice that can be given to families as to which address they are likely to go to.

  Brigadier Brister: Yes.

  Q205  Chairman: Why is it so much slower in so many cases?

  Brigadier Brister: It is slower in so many cases because . . . Of course, as you know, for the Army anyway the target is no less than four months' notice for 65% of Army people who are posted. Obviously that is the minimum target: the Army strives to go beyond the 65%. For those who do not get the four months—which because of the pace of life is not possible—then of course they have significantly more difficulty. But, even with that time, if it is at the wrong time of year—

  Q206  Chairman: That is a different issue. In general, it should be a minimum of three and a half months.

  Brigadier Brister: It is just slightly less, is it not? Three months and a week, I suppose, with 15 days. It is just under three and a half months. That is what it should be for most people.

  Mr Touhig: There is one point I would like to emphasise which I am sure the Committee will appreciate. It is not one-size-fits-all in terms of a posting. Postings could be for a unit move, individual moves, compassionate moves, so it is not possible to have an overall, one-size-fits-all approach to it. But the targets are constantly under review and this is one area where we are collaborating. You asked at the beginning, Chairman, about a collaboration, working with DfES, and wondering where we are working with DfES. We recognise that we cannot be complacent. From the evidence you have already taken, we do need to do more work and we appreciate that.

  Brigadier Brister: May I add one point? I should have said that when an individual receives his or her posting order it is of course his or her responsibility to apply for SFA. If, for whatever reason, they delay in making that application—which of course can happen—then of course the notification that they get of quarters becomes closer to the move date.

  Q207  Mr Hancock: Why should that be a problem for the Army? Can the Army not also help in that situation? Where somebody, who could be on operational duties somewhere, gets told that they are going to move but for obvious reasons they are preoccupied with the job they are doing at that time, do you not, as the Army overall, have a responsibility to ensure that those sort of questions are then taken up on their behalf?

  Brigadier Brister: Clearly we have a responsibility to help our people in all the ways we can but, inevitably, if some individuals delay putting in their applications, we do not police all our people, whatever their rank, in every aspect of their private life.

  Mr Touhig: Very often the partner will do this and perhaps get advice from one of the service families as well, to say, "Look, my husband has been notified of a posting. We need some help and advice". This is where we will work collaboratively with the Families' Federations.

  Q208  Chairman: Do the modern changes of life, meaning that partners are usually working themselves, make life more difficult?

  Mr Touhig: Yes. I would like to pay tribute to the role of the Families' Federations because they fill a huge gap here in social support to families who sometimes are vulnerable, and I have nothing but admiration for the work they do in this way.

  Q209  Mr Borrow: In civilian life, families often have to make decisions in terms of accepting jobs or moving around the key points in their children's education, often around GCSEs and A levels. Obviously that is a little bit more difficult for service families and I am interested in the extent to which the MoD is able to take those pressure points into account and recognise, if children are coming up to GCSEs or A levels, that that is perhaps not the ideal time to start moving a particular service family.

  Mr Touhig: I appreciate that is an important point. It cannot always be taken into account. Of course, I am sure colleagues here will realise that when you join the Forces you are joining an organisation which is fairly mobile, and moves are fairly frequent—as you have seen from the evidence of the children, in particular, from the moves that they have had in their lives. But, yes, we have a duty and a responsibility to be as helpful and supportive as we possibly can. This is constantly under review and we benefit from the advice given by the Families' Federation. I am sure we are going to be informed by the report of this Committee at the end of the day on this matter, which might cause us to re-examine some things further that we have not thought of. We do not have the fount of all knowledge in these matters and your work will contribute to our ongoing evaluation.

  Q210  Mr Borrow: Is there a system in place which flags up service families in that situation when it comes to doing postings? Is that knowledge readily available?

  Brigadier Brister: The Army Personnel Centre is responsible for posting people. Obviously the desk officers there know their people and all factors are taken into account. They cannot always be acted on, as you would understand, because of the operational life that we lead, but it is the case if children are on particularly the years which in exam courses lead into GCSE or GCE (that is, AS and A level) that that is taken particularly seriously, and if a family does have to move at that stage in one of their children's lives then they are allowed to ask to retain their quarter in the location that they are, so that the child can continue with their course of study at the same school. That is always looked on favourably and we try to help in those circumstances.

  Q211  Chairman: Is the definition of what is a key point in a child's academic year quite restrictive?

  Brigadier Brister: It is specifically if they are on a course leading to public examinations.

  Q212  Mr Hancock: Can I ask a couple of questions about the role of the Army in giving support to the family when the father may have been moved several weeks or months before the family arrive, the family arrive and the husband is not around because he may be on operations. What sort of support is there available to the family then to ensure that the settling in process, in particular the schooling issues, are dealt with? Are there facilities available for fathers to get leave to be present during that time?

  Brigadier Brister: As you are aware, the Army Welfare Service and the unit welfare officer support families at these times in the broad range of activities. In terms of specific schooling issues, then CEAS assists parents with selecting, finding, gaining entry to a school. In terms of the service person having leave in order to assist the family with settling in, this really will vary from unit to unit, and if the family moves together at the same time normally a service person will have leave when they arrive in a new location. If he or she has moved ahead, then they may or may not do so, but there is no specific policy. But what I can say is that all of us in the Army always try to do what we can to help our people but our ability to do so is sometimes curtailed by the operational tempo of our lives.

  Q213  Mr Hancock: You suggested in answer to an earlier question from David that there was support at appeals for parents who had selected a particular school. If the appeal goes against the parents, I am interested to know on what basis you would fight an appeal for a service family. If you had several, would you prioritise? If there are several people wanting to go to one school and they are all from service families, I am interested to know how the system of prioritising kicks in. I am also interested to know what you do to help them in the fall-out of not getting a place in their preferred school, about offering opportunities for maybe transport to another selected school which might be some distance away.

  Brigadier Brister: In terms of assistance with admissions, in the first instance that is done at both unit and local level and by CEAS. CEAS will assist with the application. CEAS will advise the service parent of whether they meet the admission criteria and on whether, therefore, they should appeal if they do not get it, and then they will help them with the case. If then they do not get the school of their choice, of course we will help them try to find another school for their children. In terms of whether we then provide transport if they have to go to a school some distance away, I am afraid I do not know the answer to that. As far as I know we do not. I am told that we do not.

  Q214  Mr Hancock: I want to ask one other question about the issue of parental choice in these matters. Do you have any information about the number of children of service families who have been home tutored because that parents would not accept what was available?

  Brigadier Brister: I do not have any information on that, sir.

  Mr Touhig: That is something we could write to the Committee about, if that helps.

  Mr Hancock: I represent Portsmouth. We have a number of issues in the area where families who have not got their choice are disappointed and will not send their children to the school that is available. That then poses some real issues for them, particularly service families, where there are other pressures on the parents as well as having to educate their children at home.

  Q215  Chairman: Minister, you have offered to write to the Committee about that and I think it would be very helpful if you could do so.

  Mr Touhig: Yes, we will certainly do that. Just to add, if it does help, Mr Chairman, in the discussions we are having with DfES at the moment, we do recognise that there is a problem with admissions. We are seeking to create greater opportunity for choice for parents, recognising the difficulties that we have. In fact DfES have advised admission panels and appeals panels to accept a letter from commanding officers to say that a family is moving into an area, even if they do not have a specific address. That is one step we are trying to push forward, recognising the difficulties we have to try to make it easier.

  Q216  Mr Hancock: We have been told in evidence to the Committee that information between the MoD and school authorities about postings can be poor. I suppose that works in both directions, both when you are moving a unit in and when they are moving out, because the effects of children leaving school and not being replaced can have a pretty dramatic effect on them. How does the MoD normally inform schools and the authorities of planned large-scale postings? How much notice would you give a local authority and individual schools?

  Mr Touhig: I think it is patchy.

  Brigadier Brister: We have a Tri-Service schools liaison policy which sets out the policy for liaising at three levels; first of all with DfES (which is done by SP Pol with CEAS supporting them), then at regional level and then at individual school level. Points of contact are nominated at all those levels with the lead service in each region. It is the responsibility of those liaison officers to keep the local authorities and particularly the local schools informed of significant developments in those areas. CEAS also have an important liaison role with local education authorities where there are significant numbers of service children. I know from the evidence at Colchester that this form of communication is not perfect, because some of the heads made the point that they felt they were not being told of developments, they were not getting sufficient notice. We know that, however hard you try, communication is never perfect but we must strive to make it perfect. I do not know whether those instances of which you heard are blips or indicative of a more serious issue, but we need to find out. I like to think—and I am relatively confident—that they are blips. I am not suggesting that this policy is working perfectly. I think it works, by and large, okay. There is clearly, as we have heard, room for improvement.

  Q217  Mr Hancock: You have mentioned the notice you give to an individual about their movement, but the MoD and the Army must have, well in advance, the plans of operational movements for large movements of personnel, maybe as long as a year, maybe 18 months, maybe even longer. We were at the Royal Navy and they had a list up which could tell us where ships are going to be deployed over a four-year period. I cannot imagine the Army is too different from that. You must know the numbers involved in each of those units for the potential for children going into the area. In your experience, Brigadier, what would be the notice period that you would serve on a local education authority and the local schools of those large movements? Would it be a year?

  Brigadier Brister: I am afraid I cannot put a specific time on it. I can say that liaison contacts should inform the local authorities of the time that they know of these changes. The intent of the policy is that, as we know of changes, we inform the local schools and the local authorities.

  Q218  Chairman: The ending of the arms plot should make that easier.

  Brigadier Brister: It should. Obviously the super garrisons in time of course should make that easier—although there will still be mobility within the Forces, as you know.

  Chairman: Of course.

  Q219  Mr Jones: Brigadier, you said that you inform the education authorities and the schools. Do you inform both? What is the method? Do you leave it to education authorities to inform the schools or do you inform schools directly?

  Brigadier Brister: The intent is to inform both, because we have these three layers of liaison. So individual schools by their school liaison officer, and then the regional point of contact as well. That is what the intent is.

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