The Office for Fair Access closed at the end of 31 March 2018 and responsibility for higher education access regulation transferred to the Office for Students

Topic briefing: students from military service families

About this briefing

This briefing gives an overview of the current challenges and evidence around access, success and progression for students from military service families (‘service children’). It highlights effective practice examples of how universities and colleges are working to support such students. The briefing includes a framework and questions that higher education providers can use to further develop their work in this area.

We hope that this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about service children leading to more evidence-led approaches tailored to providers’ own contexts and circumstances.


Why is this topic important?


What do we understand about the educational journeys of students from military service families?

What is already being done through access agreements and activities in the sector?

What could providers do?

Next steps

Related resources

Why is this topic important?

Research by the University of Winchester estimates the participation rate of young people from military service families in higher education to be approximately 24 per cent based on census data for 2011, compared to a rate of approximately 43 per cent in the general population at the same time (Department for Education, 2017), a gap of around 19 per cent. Despite the challenges in deriving reliable data, this suggests that there is a significant, unexplained gap in the rate of progression to higher education for service children.

The Armed Forces Covenant is a commitment from the nation that:

Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.

It is important to ensure that students whose parents are or have been military service personnel are not disadvantaged in their opportunity to progress to higher education through the circumstances arising from their parents’ service.


How do we define service children?

There is no official definition of a service child. However, for practical purposes this group is likely to comprise of students whose parents have served in the armed forces at any time within the past six years. This is the definition (referred to as ‘Ever 6’) used by the Department for Education in connection with the Service Pupil Premium in England.

How many are there?

There are challenges in reliably identifying the number of service children. However, two approaches indicate that the service children population is likely to number in the region of high tens of thousands. Though these approaches calculate the service child population on different bases, they give a good indication of the scale of the population.

The first approach to estimating the service child population uses the number of Service Pupil Premium (SPP) recipients.  75,268 children in primary and secondary schools in England were in receipt of the Service Pupil Premium in financial year 2017-18. This is available for pupils from reception to year 11 recorded as Ever 6 service children or in receipt of a child pension from the Ministry of Defence. One limitation is that SPP currently only applies to children in state schools, free schools and academies in England, and hence does not encompass children in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or overseas.  It also does not include children accompanying service personnel posted overseas.

The second approach uses the number of dependent children of currently serving personnel. An analysis of MoD personnel records by the Service Children’s Progression Alliance has identified 57,188 children and young people of school age who were dependents of serving military personnel as of January 2017. This figure encompasses the United Kingdom and those accompanying parents on overseas postings. By contrast to SPP, the numbers of children of currently serving personnel includes children in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and on overseas postings.  However, this approach does not include those recently discharged, and this figure is more likely to fluctuate year-on-year due to differential patterns of recruitment and service in the forces.

Where are they?

There are localities with higher concentrations of such students than others, notably in the vicinity of military bases. However, it is important to note that these are not the only localities where such students may be found. Service children are likely to be educated in schools that are within reach of all higher education providers.

OFFA’s guidance on service children

Access agreements and OFFA’s remit concern students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups. OFFA has recognised children from military service families as a group where there is specific evidence that barriers exist that may prevent equality of opportunity in higher education. OFFA encourages institutions to consider how they may tailor support for these students.  

What do we understand about the educational journeys of service children?

Students from military service families often display a wealth of positive qualities including open-mindedness, pride, determination, resilience and being self-possessed. It is thus important not to begin from a deficit position when considering their educational opportunities.

Nevertheless, there are a range of particular challenges that may be associated with being a child of a current or former military service personnel. These may impact on the likelihood of such a young person accessing and succeeding in higher education.

Progression to higher education

Forthcoming research by the Army Families Federation will indicate that 78 per cent of parents surveyed would like their children to attend university. Opportunities for personal development and improved career prospects featured prominently as motivations.

Barriers to higher education

Academic attainment

Though students from service families who are mobile (i.e. move homes, and therefore schools, as the service person is deployed) may appear to attain less highly than their non-mobile service peers (House of Commons Defence Committee, 2013), students from military service families do seem to achieve similar academic outcomes to their non-service peers at Key Stages 1 and 2 and at GCSE level (McCullouch and Hall, 2016). Data from the OECD’s PISA assessments (2015) suggest that, in the UK, children who are identified as being from military service families achieve about as well in mathematics, science and reading as their non-military service peers:

  Mathematics Science Reading
Service children 497 517 491
Non-service children 491 503 495
Difference +1.2% +2.8% -0.8%
UK average 492 509 498
OECD average 490 493 493

However, when considering parental rank, children of officers tended to attain significantly higher than those of lower ranks. Those of lower ranks also attain below the UK average:

  Mathematics Science Reading
Children of officers 517 539 517
Children of non-commissioned officers 456 473 440
Difference +13.4% +14.0% +17.5%

Thus, differences in prior attainment may reflect differences between rank and branch of service. They may in turn be reflective of a broader range of socio-economic factors that are associated with lower rates of progression to higher education. For example, personnel of lower ranks may be more likely to be drawn from locales with lower levels of participation in higher education, lower incomes and lower academic attainment. All of these factors are associated with lower rates of progression to higher education (Bowes et al, 2015).

Mobility and family separation

Moving between schools can impact on students’ academic outcomes. This can occur because of delays, poor communication between schools, inadequate transition arrangements (particularly for those with additional learning needs and those sitting examinations) and differences in curriculum provision (McCullouch and Hall, 2016). Mobility can also impact on students’ emotional wellbeing, for example through disrupted friendships and an increased potential for bullying (McCullouch and Hall, 2016).

Access to extra-curricular activities

Service children can experience challenges in accessing the kinds of extra-curricular activities that are often used to support applications to higher education. Family mobility may make sustained participation in activities difficult and can limit access to certain kinds of activity. For example, a service child who was part of a sports team may find it difficult to establish themselves again at a new school.

Parental deployment

The Service Children in State Schools (SCISS) handbook notes that deployment places strains on family life and can impact upon the educational and emotional wellbeing of service children. As well as the impact of parental absence, SCISS also advises of the potential for disruption to learning and home life through the return of deployed parents.

The absence of a parent through deployment has been associated with increased incidences of emotional and behavioural difficulties, and a higher incidence of mental health difficulties.

Young carers in military families

Parental deployment is also associated with an increased incidence of students taking on caring responsibilities, for example for a younger sibling or for a parent with health needs (McCullouch and Hall, 2016). The Carers Trust notes that young carers may be also caring for parents who have returned from service injured or experiencing post-traumatic stress disorders.

The Children’s Society defines young carers as those who are under 18 who provide, or intend to provide, care for another person who is disabled or has a long-term illness, a mental health condition or addiction problem. Their research notes that young carers in military service families are less likely to be identified as young carers and are thus less likely to receive support than young carers in civilian families. Continuity of support is also likely to be a challenge, particularly with regards to family mobility.

Research by Carers Trust and the University of Nottingham shows that young adult carers often struggle in higher education because of their caring responsibilities. Being a young carer is associated with higher incidences of poor mental and general health, significantly lower attainment at GCSE level and a greater likelihood of not being in education, employment or training aged 16-19.

Access to further education provision

Family mobility during year 11 can impact on opportunities to apply for further education courses and apprenticeships. This can arise through:

All of these factors can lead to some students being unable to access courses that are prerequisites for some higher education courses.

Access to student finance

Service children can experience challenges in accessing the student finance system. Eligibility can vary depending on where the student was ordinarily resident prior to the parent enlisting. Sometimes this can result in students being unable to access student finance in the part of the UK in which they have undertaken the majority of their education. Since 2017-18 children of serving personnel posted overseas have been eligible to apply for distance learning support when outside of the UK.

The challenges of non-identification

Service children can represent a classic dilemma of difference, whereby there are potentially negative effects associated with both identification and non-identification. Students may be unwilling to self-identify as children of service personnel, perhaps out of a desire to appear ‘normal’, because of security concerns, or because they do not recognise the significance of past parental service. As noted, students from military service families often possess a wealth of positive personal characteristics, so it is important to avoid stigmatisation. Nevertheless, it is still important that students are able to access the support they may need to address real challenges to their learning and progression.

Providers may experience difficulties in identifying applicants and current students that are from military service families, particularly where students’ parents were not active service personnel at the time of application.

What is already being done through access agreements and activities in the sector?

Bath Spa University

In its 2018-19 access agreement the university commits to working with school and local authority coordinators to play an active role in providing support for young people and adults from Armed Forces families, including them in targeting criteria for schools outreach and in adult and community outreach programmes. They also commit to developing partnerships with other universities through participation in the Service Children’s Progression (SCiP) Alliance, to share good practice and deliver collaborative outreach.

Facilitating access to further education in Kent

Further education and apprenticeship providers in Kent participate in a common online application process via UCAS Progress. Students in year 11 attending schools in Kent are automatically issued with credentials for UCAS Progress in the autumn term. Service children who join schools in Kent later in the academic year may still make use of the application process. Such an approach helps to address the risk that family mobility mid-year leads to students missing out on vital points of information, advice and guidance.

University of Southampton

The 2018-19 access agreement identifies gifted and talented service children as a priority group for accessing the Learn with US outreach programme.

University of Suffolk

Students from military and ex-military families are identified among target groups for outreach work in the 2018-19 access agreement.

University of Winchester

Service children are specifically recognised in criteria for targeting outreach activities in the 2018-19 access agreement. The University commits to working with the Ministry of Defence and a range of other partners to support the educational progression of children from military families, sharing research and resources across the sector, including through leading the Service Children’s Progression Alliance.

The University also carries out a number of bespoke outreach activities. For example the University of Winchester has been working with Hampshire County Council and schools in the region to develop service children’s aspirations and awareness of higher education since 2014. In April 2017 the University ran two successful Creative Forces outreach days in conjunction with Hampshire County Council. Separate events for primary and secondary school children were held, with the secondary event being run in collaboration with Bath Spa University. The events were supported by current University students from military backgrounds who shared their experiences of progressing through education with the children. The day also included creative writing workshops, a campus tour, a CPD session for staff and an opportunity for children to share their ideas of how schools can best support them.

Further support: Armed Forces Covenant

48 higher education providers and 29 further education providers have become signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant, committing to notions such as being an armed forces-friendly organisation and supporting access to education for current/former service personnel and their families. Other providers may also have signed the covenant in collaboration with other bodies. The majority of these providers do not make specific reference to the children of armed forces personnel within their covenant commitments. However, the following are examples of specific pledges made by providers with regards to access to education:

What could providers do?


Providers could usefully understand their own contexts with regards to service children by:


Providers could usefully address questions of access by:


Providers can support the success of service children by:

Continuous development

Providers can continue to develop their support for service children by:

Next steps

Questions to consider

  1. How can you identify service children in your student population? How might you be able to provide the academic and pastoral support these students may require?
  2. How could you develop outreach work with schools, colleges and other organisations to address barriers experienced by service children?
  3. What specific targets and activities relating to service children could be identified for your next access and participation plan and equality strategy?
  4. Which of your current members of staff have a military background, either as service personnel or as children of service personnel? How could they contribute to forming an institutional strategy towards students from military service families?
  5. Is your provider a signatory to the armed forces covenant? If so, how can you ensure your work to support fair access to higher education for service children is part of a broader strategic institutional approach?

Related resources

Service Children’s Progression Alliance (SCiP): a partnership of organisations focused on improving outcomes for service children. It is funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Service Children in State Schools Handbook: a supportive resource, written mainly by practitioners in schools for their peers. It includes contextual information about aspects of the service family experience and examples of good practice.

Army Families Federation: the independent voice of Army families that works to improve the quality of life for Army families around the world – on any aspect that is affected by the Army lifestyle. 

Naval Families Federation: supporting naval service families to be able to have their views heard by those in positions of power, feel valued and be treated with fairness and respect, and thrive in their communities of choice.

Royal Air Force Families Federation: provides all RAF personnel and their families – Regular and Reserve, single or married – with timely and professional support, assistance and an independent voice regarding issues or concerns that they may have. 

Children’s Education Advisory Service (CEAS): part of the MOD’s Directorate Children and Young People, CEAS is a small dedicated team, who are experienced in advising service parents on a wide range of issues regarding the education of service children in the UK and overseas.