Queen Victoria School, Dunblane (Military Covenant)

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 14th June 2011.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling 1:30 pm, 14th June 2011

It is a pleasure to have the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I am delighted that Mr Gray is present to take part in it, not least because he grew up in the town in which Queen Victoria school is situated. I am also delighted to have been offered the opportunity to introduce this short debate on Queen Victoria school, Dunblane, and its contribution to the military covenant.

As far as I have been able to trace, this is the first time that there has been a specific debate on Queen Victoria school, even though it has been in existence since it opened in 1908. It is therefore worth highlighting for the record the reasons for its foundation, the original aims of the school, why it was an early manifestation of what we now call the military covenant and why it deserves to continue making its unique contribution.

Built through subscriptions from serving personnel and other interested parties, Queen Victoria school was created in memory of those who had died in the South African wars of the late 19th century. At that time, it was for boys only. It was opened on 28 September 1908 by King Edward VII. At that time, he also laid the foundation stone for the school chapel, which was completed in 1910 and is Scotland’s memorial to Queen Victoria. Various buildings have been added over the years, including the Macmillan sports hall to mark 50 years of the school’s existence. Other changes included the admission of girls in 1996 and the move to a staff comprised almost entirely of civilians.

The school has always been under the control of the Ministry of Defence in its various manifestations; in fact, the school was administered originally under the auspices of the Department of War. The school was established under royal warrant. The situation was unique. The warrant was initiated by Queen Victoria but enacted by her son, King Edward VII, who signed it in 1908.

The warrant is interestingly worded. It says that the Department of War shall take over the said buildings—those that had been built by subscription—

“to uphold the same in proper condition and repair, and to efficiently maintain therein a School as aforesaid…under the name and title of the Queen Victoria School for the Sons of Scottish Sailors and Soldiers; As also out of funds to be voted in Parliament to meet and defray the whole cost of such maintenance, and all rates, taxes, feu-duties…and other annual and other outgoings in respect thereof”.

The warrant also states that the then Secretary of State—in continuum, I suppose, through to the current one—

“further undertakes for himself… that the Said School and Chapel shall be maintained in perpetuity as a Scottish School in Scotland for the Sons of Scottish Sailors and Soldiers, that it shall be so maintained, managed, and administered on the lines indicated in a Royal Warrant which His Majesty is to be asked graciously to grant”.

I am sure that the Minister has looked over the royal warrant. It is an impressive piece of drafting, which is designed to make the warrant watertight against the exigencies of future pressures, whether financial or otherwise. I can imagine that at more than one point in the school’s history, the warrant has been pored over with great precision by MOD lawyers to try to discover whether there is a get-out clause.

The school was established to educate children of “other ranks”—in other words, not the children of officers. For most of its history, that has essentially been the pool of children from which pupils have been drawn. There are pupils whose parents are or may be officers, but for the most part, those parents have come through the ranks. From the outside, with its large campus, playing fields and, dare I say it, the somewhat Victorian if not slightly gothic look of some of the older buildings—I am sure that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire recognises that description—it looks like any other private boarding school, yet it is unique.

When the school was established, and through the greater part of its history, it would have offered pupils a very different experience from what is gained there now. From my observations of that history, there is no doubt that there was an emphasis on training the boys—only boys at that time—of soldiers and sailors to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. For reasons that were prevalent at the time, and perhaps things that we do not quite understand now, it was not considered particularly important to open out options, particularly academic options, for those boys. The education would undoubtedly have been based on the model of the day: a strong emphasis on discipline—probably a harsh discipline—and on training and drill; and strong encouragement to follow dad into the Army or Navy.

The governance of the school is undertaken by Her Majesty’s commissioners, with the current and long-standing patron being the Duke of Edinburgh. A comparison between the list of commissioners of only 30-odd years ago and those of today is informative. It gives an immediate impression of how the school has developed and now takes more account of modern educational and pastoral practice. A glance at the list of commissioners in 1974, for example, would, I think, cause us some concern in today’s world. There is General Sir Philip, Admiral Sir Angus, General Sir Gordon, Air Marshal Sir Brian, Air Vice-Marshal A.—whoever A. is—a Major-General, a Lieutenant-General and a Vice-Admiral Sir. There is not a woman in sight until we get to the name of the residential school nurse. The ultimate authority at that time was not a head teacher, but a commandant, who was a retired brigadier. I am sure that they were all good men—I certainly do not wish to impugn the character of any of those who were commissioners at the time—but I suspect that they were drawn from a very elite pool and had very little if any educational experience apart from that of their own school days.

That contrasts with today’s commissioners. The chairman, Bart McGettrick, is an eminent educationist with a national and international reputation. The commissioners, although still with their quota of military personnel as dictated by the original warrant, are drawn from a wider pool, including a Scottish woman sheriff who has extensive expertise in child care matters, and a local chartered accountant who lives in Dunblane, Mr Alan Plumtree.

The school also has links to the Stirling state network and the wider Scottish independent school network. Those links have been developed during the past 14 years or so and bring to the school a wider ambit of educational experience. Although no Stirling head teacher is currently serving as a commissioner, there was one until recently. I trust that that important connection with both the mainstream state sector and the local educational sector will not be lost in future commissioner appointments.

However, I wish to highlight the contribution of Queen Victoria school to the modern military covenant. I want to test the Minister on one or two points to ensure not only that he currently values its contribution, but that the MOD takes seriously the commitment made in 1908 of support “in perpetuity”.

Although QVS has changed over its 103 years, it still provides stability and continuity of education within the Scottish system for the children of armed forces personnel who are Scottish, have served in Scotland or are part of a Scottish regiment. That means that the pupils’ parents can be in the Scottish regiments. Indeed, I know from my own experience that there are young Fijian children at the school, as well as children whose parents have volunteered for the Scottish regiments.

Sadly, the school is still needed in the same way it ever was. Although there are fewer orphans at the school nowadays, about 50% of the children were orphans at one point, because they had priority in the admissions process. Improved medical techniques mean that there are far more survivors of military conflicts, but some parents who return will be seriously disabled, and children of such battlefield survivors are coming before the QVS admissions board. In August, there will be at least one new pupil whose father is an amputee from a current conflict.

Unquestionably, many QVS families—probably the majority—could not afford boarding education for their children, even if they were in receipt of the continuity of education allowance. The MOD is tightening the CEA eligibility criteria, but even those who are still eligible will have to pay about 10% of their fees, as well as the extras levied by fee-paying schools. Such things would be beyond the means of most families with children at QVS. Even under the rumoured plans for more static Army, Air Force and Royal Navy units, there will still be some need for mobility, and that will not be limited to those—mainly officers—who can afford boarding with the help of the CEA.

There is also a sound educational justification for the MOD to maintain its commitment to QVS. A recent Ofsted report on the education of children of military families clearly identified the fact that there were significant issues with the quality of the educational experience of children whose parents were mobile or on active deployment. It noted:

“A key feature of life in the Armed Forces is that families are likely to move home, to different parts of the UK and abroad, on a regular basis. The number of moves will be dependent on the length of service of the serving parent and their role within the Armed Forces… However…parents invariably identified the disruption, caused by their geographical mobility, as beingj the biggest challenge faced by themselves and their children. Disruption is further exacerbated for children in these families as they had to change schools generally outside of normal school term dates”,

which adds to their difficulties.

Those are the very children QVS caters for, and the constantly improving educational achievement at the school is testimony to what it does. The exam results at QVS are above the Scottish average at O-grade and higher levels. The increasing ambitions of the children and their parents are being realised. On visits to the school over the past few years, I have seen that the young people leaving the school are going to university and college in greater numbers than ever before—something that I did not see when I became the MP for the area some years ago.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on the excellence of the debate. I lived in Dunblane all my formative years and saw the superb education provided at Queen Victoria school. I entirely take her point about children of military families moving around. Does she agree that it is extremely disappointing that we have a Queen Victoria school in Scotland but no equivalent in England? Is it not time that we had one down here, too?

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

The Minister might be venturing a step too far if he answers that at this point, but the MOD should perhaps take the QVS model slightly more seriously, particularly in some of the discussions it is having about the continuity of education allowance, because there are perhaps some options there.

I have some brief questions for the Minister. Given the importance of the military covenant, will he make it clear that his Department recognises the contribution of QVS and does not see it as some anachronism from a bygone age? I use the word “anachronism” because it was used in a report by the Select Committee on Defence four or five years ago, although the Committee also recognised the importance of maintaining the school.

Does the Minister recognise that mobile service personnel who cannot afford to access the continuity of education allowance should have their children’s needs supported and that QVS offers a valuable resource to meet those needs? I am sure the Minister has heard the comments of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire on the issue.

Will the Minister encourage his officials to work with the commissioners to look at options to expand the facilities at QVS and to use them and the school’s expertise to the benefit of a greater number of the children of mobile service personnel, giving them the opportunity to benefit from the stability and pastoral care offered by the school?

Next week, we will have armed forces day. On 24 June, QVS will have its grand day—a mixture of school prize-giving and end-of-term celebration. I hope that the Minister, before he perhaps moves on to higher offices in another Department—

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

I would never use that word to a Minister. However, I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity to come to the school to see its grand day. It is a fantastic celebration of the school, and I have been privileged to be present at it for the past 14 years. In front of their parents and families, the students parade in their Victorian scarlet uniforms and kilts to the beat of their own superb, internationally recognised pipe band. It is a day of high celebration and some emotion, as the sixth-year pupils leave the school for the last time. Grand day is a public statement of this country’s support for these children, who allow us—the civilian population—to borrow their parents to protect our freedoms. Thankfully, most of the families will be reunited in safety. Sadly, some parents will not return, while others will be disabled for life.

I do not wish to see the school preserved in aspic. There are still ways in which it can develop its educational and pastoral potential, and I am obviously happy to discuss my views with the Minister on a future occasion. However, I want to leave him with some words from one of the pupils, which perhaps sum up why a facility such as QVS is so important to the children who attend it:

“Here are some numbers. The first is nine. Nine is the number of times my life has been loaded onto a lorry and taken miles away, sometimes across one border, sometimes across several. The next number is seven. Seven is the number of times I’ve had said to me, ‘So how was your first day?’”

That is why there is a continuing role for QVS and an opportunity to see it expand as part of the Government’s valuable commitment to the military covenant.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 1:48 pm, 14th June 2011

I congratulate Mrs McGuire on securing this short debate to highlight the work of Queen Victoria school in Dunblane. She takes a close interest in the school and has presented prizes there—perhaps she will do so on grand day on 24 June. I congratulate her on her obvious passion and support for the school.

The school has a long and proud history, which the right hon. Lady detailed. Its work chimes well with the Government’s commitment to our armed forces and their families, which is part of the armed forces covenant. The right hon. Lady’s first question was whether the Government recognise the value of QVS and, anachronistic or not—the school is rather unusual—we certainly value its work. I will discuss that further later in my speech.

The history of QVS is unique, although there are similar, but different schools in England. As the right hon. Lady said, the school was founded in 1905 by royal warrant. I was not going to mention the “in perpetuity” bit, but, unfortunately, she has already mentioned it. The school was originally founded by public subscription, but the Secretary of State for War undertook to maintain it for the sons of Scottish sailors and soldiers. Those responsibilities are now vested in my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Defence. Responsibility for its day-to-day governance rests with the board of commissioners, and the right hon. Lady has told us who they are. I was glad that she did not want to attack the senior and distinguished commissioners from 1974. The commissioners report to the Adjutant-General on behalf of the Secretary of State.

Since 1908, the opportunity has been taken to widen and modernise the remit of the school, while staying in the spirit of its founding constitution. In 1919, just after the Royal Air Force was formed, the school was opened to children of RAF personnel. It became co-educational in 1996, when entry was extended to daughters of service personnel, and, as the right hon. Lady said, it accepted the children of officers in 1999. Its basic purpose remains consistent with the aims of those who contributed so generously to its establishment: to provide secondary boarding education for the children of Scottish personnel and personnel who have served in Scotland or are part of a Scottish regiment. Although parents are not charged fees, they make a modest contribution to ancillary costs, which is slightly more than £1,000 a year.

The two elements of the school—the fact that it is Scottish and for the services—have combined to give it the very special ethos and nature that makes it unique in the UK. As well as providing a sound academic education, the school offers its pupils the opportunity to participate in various Scottish activities, including Scottish dance and performing in a pipe band. I was in an English regiment in the Army, but the one thing that would have persuaded me to join a Scottish regiment was not so much the kilts—my legs notwithstanding—but the fact that I love marching to a pipe band. I am glad to know that that activity continues in Dunblane.

It is in understanding and meeting the specific needs of service children that QVS is most special. The recent Ofsted report on children in service families, which covered England and Wales but contains lessons equally applicable to all our service families, found that some service children’s learning slowed or receded with the frequent moves that service life requires. It should be pointed out though that that does not feed through to attainment and there is no evidence of underachievement. Indeed, in the paper, “The Armed Forces Covenant, Today and Tomorrow”, the Department for Education states that in England attainment in exams for service children is not below average. It also demonstrates that at some stages of their education, service children have better attainment than their non-service counterparts.

QVS offers full continuity of secondary education for the children who attend and most importantly it offers it in a secure and safe environment that recognises and understands the special pressures on children that their parents’ life in the services can bring. The disruption caused by service life can be worsened when parents are deployed on active service, and the operational tempo has remained high for over a decade. The Ofsted report to which I referred found that some service children were susceptible to social and emotional disturbance when a parent or family member was on active deployment. Those pressures are especially well understood and catered for in a school where the staff are alert for their signs and where pupils can understand and share one another’s concerns.

Over the years, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of education and the Care Commission, which inspect Scottish schools, have commented favourably on the supportive environment that QVS offers to service children. The school plays a valuable part in supporting elements of the armed forces covenant in Scotland, which provides an answer to another of the right hon. Lady’s questions. Against that background, the Ministry of Defence has continued to provide for the needs of the school. As well as financing its running directly, much support is provided by the local military. Headquarters 2 division, based in Edinburgh, offers practical help in a number of ways, such as security and transport.

The school has concerns about the state of its buildings, and it is not unique in that. The pressure on the estate, which has to support the wide range of activities for which the MOD is responsible, is unrelenting, and when distributing limited resources, the needs of the school, however worthy, must be balanced against other operational and welfare priorities for our people and the wider needs of defence. The fact that some of its rather beautiful buildings are listed adds to the attractiveness of the school, but also to the costs of maintaining it. Within that difficult environment, I am pleased to say that QVS has seen some £2 million-worth of refurbishment, improvement and maintenance works over the past couple of years, including the replacement of a significant number of windows within the grade II listed main school building.

I am aware however that not all the perceived needs and aspirations of the school have necessarily been addressed. Therefore MOD officials, some of whom serve as commissioners, are working closely with the school and the whole board of commissioners to develop a strategic plan, not just to preserve the achievements of the school, but to improve on them. That will include identifying the investment required in the infrastructure, but it is by no means confined to that. For example, with Her Majesty’s commissioners we are exploring closer integration with Service Children’s Education, which provides education for service children overseas. I am not suggesting that Scotland is overseas, because I know that doing so would get the right hon. Lady going, but there is a certain synergy in the provision of education. The school is unique, and it might be better dealt with by the SCE because it deals specifically with the education of service children.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

Does that mean that some of the criteria I highlighted would be lost? I appreciate that the Minister is looking at administrative ease, but the mobile service personnel element and the particular and unique support that QVS gives could be lost if it is absorbed into something that does not quite fit. He has just revealed this idea, and I am interested in the option.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The right hon. Lady asks a very good question. We are examining the possibility, but it is not the intention to slot the school into a neat package. It is about where it would be best administrated and this is an administrative matter. I can already see that if we were to undermine the school, she would be back like a shot to ensure that did not happen.

Closer integration with the SCE could help to provide greater specialist support to QVS and greater integration with other service schools overseas, which some of the children will have been to already. Against the severe financial constraints we inherited, within which the MOD and the rest of Government are working, it is extremely challenging to increase the resources devoted to the school, notwithstanding the benefits it brings—and it does bring benefits—and the underpinning it provides in Scotland to our commitments under the armed forces covenant. Like everything else in our budget, it must compete with other extremely high priorities, but we are committed to working with the school and its commissioners to identify the most beneficial and cost-effective way forward through the development of a medium-term strategic plan.

The right hon. Lady particularly asked whether it was possible to expand the school, which is one of the things at which we will certainly look. It is not cost-free and we are strapped for cash, but if children go there rather than to other independent schools, where the continuity of education allowance has to be paid, it could be cheaper. I understand the value of QVS to those who are not in receipt of CEA, because it provides a different way forward for schooling.

Finally, we have delivered a scheme to provide scholarships to bereaved service children and a new fund announced by the Secretary of State on 20 May provides £3 million a year for state schools with service children. The new fund will assist schools and academies that have children with parents in the services or the reserves, to help mitigate the impact of mobility and deployment within the armed forces.

Before I close, I want to say that I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this topic. I was interested in what the right hon. Lady had to say. I have not been to Dunblane, but QVS is obviously very good. I will correct one thing that she said: approximately 50% of CEA is paid to officers’ families and 50% is paid to others—I think that is right. If I am wrong, I shall write to her to apologise. I think that 50% is within 5% of the right figure, but of course it changes each year.

It is always nice to hear a Labour politician praising an independent school. It cheers me up no end, because we do not always hear it. I assure the House that the education of service children, wherever they learn—in state schools in this country, in service schools abroad, in independent schools supported by CEA and certainly at QVS—is one of our highest priorities. I went to Welbeck defence sixth-form college only two weeks ago and have been to the Duke of York’s royal military school in Dover, which are of course different from QVS, but I take an interest in this subject. I have been delighted to respond to the right hon. Lady today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.