Service children are going under the radar in access and participation work

Children from military families have worse progression rates into higher education. Presenting a new report from NEON, Graeme Atherton argues that they should be a target group for access work

Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), and Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London

The brave new world of the Equal Opportunity Risk Register (EORR) has added both to the depth of our understanding of what leads to inequalities in access and success in higher education in England – as well as of which groups are at risk.

The EORR, introduced by the Office for Students earlier this year, outlines 12 risks to access and success along with over 40 groups who are subject to such risks. Its purpose is to act as a guide to support higher education providers in deciding who to focus their access and participation efforts on. However, as comprehensive as it is, some groups have been missed out – one of which is service children.

Service children are defined as “a person whose parent, or carer, serves in the regular Armed Forces, or as a reservist, or has done at any point during the first 25 years of that person’s life.” There are over 75,000 such children in England today.

The reason they have not been included is that the evidence regarding why their progression to higher education is at risk has not been pulled together. This gap in the access and participation evidence base is what we set out to address in the new report Under the Radar – Service Children in the UK today which is published today.

Distinctive experience

Growing up in a military family can be a quite distinctive experience. The chances of moving school can be up to three times higher than the norm. Some move multiple times – and the evidence shows that any move can lead to a fall in at least 14 percentage points in the proportion of pupils achieving GCSE English and maths grades 5 to 9.

Separation from a parent as they undertake active service or training is also the reality for some service children and can have an extremely traumatic impact on their schooling and transition to adulthood. Alongside these twin challenges, service children are dispersed and usually the only service child in that school – thus presenting schools pressured for resources with difficulties in supporting their unique needs.

These multiple risks are manifesting themselves in a lower progression rate into higher education for service children, and a growing gap in progression when compared to non-service children.

An unhAPPy picture

In the face of the risks that service children face in making the journey into higher education, our report looked at what higher education providers are doing to support them.

Up until their omission from the EORR, service children had been a group identified as one of those whom Access and Participation Plans (APPs) should pay due attention to. Despite this, we have found in the Under the Radar report that the percentage of providers who feature work with Service children in their APPs has gone down by ten per cent since 2020, and only a quarter now describe any form of activity with this group.

The report highlights the danger that the absence of service children from the EORR will lead to a further decline in the numbers of higher education providers focusing on this group when they submit their new APPs in over this year and next.

There is, however, good work going on to address the needs of the group – but it is being led in many cases by Uni Connect partnerships whose future beyond July 2024 is uncertain.

Squeezing the orange

At times over the last twenty years, deciding which groups should be the focus of widening access work has been like trying to squeeze another orange into an overstuffed bag as you wait for it to burst with the number of target groups going up and up.

The proliferation of groups is not a weakness or a problem though – but a recognition of the increasing sophistication in our understanding of inequality and difference in the chances to enter and succeed in higher education.

There is still much to understand where service children and higher education is concerned – not least how socioeconomic background disparities within the military steer different groups of young people to and away from higher education. But the evidence regarding the risks to higher education and success that service children face are compelling. It is time to for the OfS to squeeze this orange back in the bag and include service children in the EORR.

One response to “Service children are going under the radar in access and participation work

  1. Delighted to see the unique and complex needs of these remarkable children and young people coming to the fore.

    Previous analysis by the Service Children’s Progression Alliance (SCiP Alliance) has shown that Service children are taught in every other school and in almost every local authority. In short, there isn’t a university in the country that is not engaging with schools with Service children, but repeated (short-notice, mid-year) school moves and periodic stress from family separation affect their capacity to access support, as well as creating additional challenges unique to this group.

    The SCiP Alliance UK-wide Hub Network, the Thriving Lives Toolkit for schools, our online targeting tool and more resources are all designed to help universities respond to these challenges, but not enough institutions are taking advantage of these open access opportunities.

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