HE provider good practice briefing for students from UK Armed Forces Families (Service children)

This briefing is for staff working in universities and colleges and supports the introduction of the new UCAS flag to identify students from UK Armed Forces families, from 2023 entry. We have worked with the Service Children’s Progression (SCiP) Alliance and the Ministry of Defence to outline the common challenges for these students, share good practice around the UK, and provide considerations ahead of the new question.

If you're a student, please visit our information and advice page for Service children

If you're a teacher, adviser or parent, our adviser toolkit contains practical tips and advice on supporting Service children. 

Who are Service children?

The Service Children’s Progression (SCiP) Alliance defines a Service child 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’. We have aligned our definition with SCiP Alliance for the purposes of the UCAS application.

Research by The Children’s Society shows Service children to be more likely to have caring responsibilities, particularly during periods of parental deployment, but are less likely to be identified as young carers. It may be useful for HE providers to also refer to the UCAS good practice briefing for students with care responsibilities to gain a full understanding of their support needs.

What the data tells us

Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) data indicate that, in 2018–19, 76,318 children in state-funded primary and secondary education received the Service Pupil Premium in England in 2017–18. However, this excludes children outside England and those not in state-funded schools, so the actual figure is likely to be higher. SCiP Alliance analysis of Ministry of Defence personnel records indicates there were 57,188 dependent children of currently serving personnel in the UK in 2017, but this excludes the children of Service Leavers, who are harder to identify.

On average, Service children do not appear to underachieve at school in comparison to their peers. However, closer exploration of the data shows significant disparities depending on the rank of their parent or carer; the children of officers achieve significantly higher than those of lower ranking personnel, but this could be due to a combination of socio-economic factors.

Research indicates that proportionally fewer children from Armed Forces families progress to HE than their peers – the participation rate is estimated to be 24% (compared to a national average of 43%). Again, the data indicates that those with high-ranking parent(s) and carer(s) are more likely to aspire to higher education than those with lower-ranking parent(s) and carer(s), who tend to perform below the national average.

Disadvantage and opportunity for service children

With these variances in mind, achievements of Service children should be considered within their individual context, making use of additional indicators and their relative intersectionality.

Despite the challenges Service children can face, they tend to develop many positive qualities as a result, such as maturity, resilience, independence, and determination. We has worked with SCiP Alliance to create resources to help students (and their advisers) showcase these skills in their personal statements.

The UCAS application

To support the identification of students with individual support needs, UCAS has introduced a series of new questions into the application from 2023 entry. One of these questions enables students from UK Armed Forces families to self-declare their circumstances:

If you select Yes, your information will be treated in confidence, to help the university or college provide support for you. It may also be used for monitoring purposes to inform and improve support for future students who are from Armed Forces families.

Read more about applying to university if you’re from an Armed Forces family

For more information about answering this question read our FAQs. 

This question is supported by extended FAQ-style help text to clarify why we ask this question, how the student’s information will be used, and the support they may be able to access by sharing their circumstances.

To support applicants from UK Armed Forces families, UCAS has worked with SCiP Alliance to create a personal statement guide which is designed to help applicants highlight to HE providers their circumstances, as well as the strengths and skills gained from their personal experience. 

Use of this question

This question has been introduced to help universities and colleges connect students from UK Armed Forces families to the support and information they will need to make the transition to higher education and succeed in their studies.

This information is not verified by UCAS, therefore universities and colleges are expected to make contact with the student directly to discuss their support needs in more detail and check eligibility for any bursaries or other support packages. UCAS expects this information will be shared as necessary to arrange support or help students through the application and into higher education as required (e.g. the student support team, widening participation team).


Three key challenges for Service children

1. High mobility

When Service families often change location (both within the UK and overseas), young people typically change schools. As well as implications for their social circles, other challenges can include missing records, delays with special educational needs (SEN) provision, and differences in the curricula that lead to gaps in knowledge/skills. They are also less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. This can affect students’ academic outcomes, and so limit future opportunities. For example, a move during Year 11 may present difficulties when applying for post-16 education choices, potentially limiting their options which, in turn, can prevent them from accessing certain HE courses. There is also the added impact of disrupted access to information and advice, and careers guidance.

2. Parental deployment

The University of Winchester describes parental deployment as ‘by far the greatest disadvantage’ for a Service child. It is a time of uncertainty, distress, and disruption for the whole family. Should the deployment cause injury, mental health difficulties, or bereavement, the young person is likely to require support. Furthermore, it can increase the likelihood of a young person taking on care responsibilities, either during or after the deployment period. Deployment can have a significant impact on a student’s academic performance and attainment, particularly if it occurs during revision and exam periods.

3. Mental health and wellbeing

Mobility, deployment, and other family separation can have an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Service children, and some experience emotional or behavioural problems. They can find it harder to form meaningful relationships with other young people and are more likely to be bullied, and their experience of education can be poor if the transition is not well managed. Furthermore, Service children in post-16 education experience greater pressures because of their maturity and awareness of their family’s situation.

Considerations ahead of the introduction of the new question

  • To support pre-applicants
  • When you engage with secondary schools (e.g. through outreach), do you raise awareness of the support available to Service children in HE? 

  • Do outreach teams work to encourage Service children to see the positives in their lifestyle? There are some ideas on the SciP website.

  • Is the support you offer clearly signposted on your website (preferably on a dedicated page for Service children) and through student support services?

  • Is there a designated contact in student support services? Are their contact details clearly signposted on your website?

  • Are marketing and recruitment teams aware of the support available to Service children, and is this flagged at recruitment events?

  • To support applicants
  • What opportunities will Service children have to tell you about their circumstances in the admissions process (e.g. during enrolment)?

  • What processes are in place to (sensitively) share information about an applicant’s declared circumstances with your student services team? Are all parties involved aware of their responsibilities and next steps?

  • Is the information relayed to the student’s academic tutor? Are academic staff aware of the needs of Service children, or would they benefit from further information or training?

  • Do you check for references to an applicant’s family circumstances in their personal statement or reference – even if they do not tick the box (e.g. do you check for a British Forces Post Office (BFPO) or military base address)?

  • Do you take challenging circumstances such as parental deployment or moves, particularly during exam or revision periods, into account – either at the application stage or later at Confirmation?

  • Do you contact students early in the cycle so they know who to contact with any questions or support needs, instead of after Confirmation? 

  • To support transition
  • Is the student support services team aware of the Armed Forces Bereavement Scholarship Scheme (AFBSS), which can help with the costs of HE for bereaved Service children? Would they benefit from having more information or training?
  • Do you make students aware of any provision through which they can prepare for their studies ahead of transition (e.g. summer schools, workshops)?
  • Do you contact students ahead of their arrival to provide details of health and wellbeing support services available through the university, and to encourage contact to discuss any concerns or needs?
  • What measures are in place to support students with establishing social networks and integrating fully into wider student life?
  • Do students fully understand what support they will receive before they arrive, and know what to expect on their first day?

To support ongoing study and graduation

  • Are the three key challenges for Service children (as outlined above) covered, or is further provision needed?
  • Will support be reviewed periodically to ensure you are aware of any changes to the student’s circumstances (e.g. deployment, caring responsibilities)?
  • Do student support staff understand how to support a student whose parent or carer is deployed during their studies, or would they benefit from further training?
  • How will you support this group with making the transition from HE into employment (e.g. work experience, careers advice)?
  • What measures are in place to support a student making the transition out of higher education and into employment?
  • If you do not offer a discrete support package for Service children, consider the support which currently exists for all students that they might find helpful (e.g. counselling services). Could these elements be signposted together in one place (e.g. a dedicated web page), or offered as a package?

Examples of good practice and support for Service children

57 universities and colleges across the UK specifically refer to Service children (sometimes termed ‘children from military families’) in their 2019/20 widening access and participation plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England, and Outcome Agreements in Scotland). Below, we present a selection of good practice from these providers for consideration. 

Examples of ‘quick wins’

  • Recognise the key challenges for Service children during the admissions process and consider them as part of any contextualised admissions policy.
  • Priority access to hardship funds, with financial advice about budgeting.
  • Identify any staff members with an Armed Forces background who may be keen to drive change in this area using their personal expertise and experience.
  • Help with fees for clubs and societies if this is a barrier to participation.
  • Celebrate Armed Forces Day and show support for the Armed Forces community.
  • Clearing ‘scripts’ give students an opportunity to share any personal circumstances or support needs
  • Regularly check the Student Loans Company’s campaigns page and make sure you are registered to receive updates from your regional SLC account manager.

Examples of medium-term changes 

  • These may require changes to current plans, policies, or processes
  • Service children specifically mentioned in your widening access and participation strategy (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England, or Outcome Agreements in Scotland).
  • Any widening access and participation or outreach work clearly includes Service children (and carers) as a priority group – especially in areas where the UK Armed Forces are strongly represented.
  • Work with school and local authority coordinators to target Service families in school and community outreach programmes – from primary school upwards.
  • An up-to-date policy for Service children, clarifying the support they can expect, and staff roles and responsibilities.
  • Offer support to help students fill any skills gaps and prepare for higher level learning by signposting study skills sessions, and offering access courses, workshops, summer schools, and MOOCS (such as FutureLearn’s ‘Preparing for University’ course).
  • Assistance with the cost of taking Level 3 courses to help students gain vital qualifications if they are not yet ready to apply.
  • An accommodation bursary.
  • Appoint Service children as ambassadors to support internal events (e.g. open days), help appoint and train widening access and participation staff, and attend external events (e.g. conferences) to share their perspectives and reflect on the outcomes.
  • Peer mentoring programmes for secondary and primary pupils using undergraduates from an Armed Forces background.
  • A support or social group for students from an Armed Forces background to enable them to meet other students in similar circumstances.
  • Help with fees for clubs and societies, to help address barriers to socialising and reduce loneliness.

Examples of longer-term changes

  • These may require planning and substantial changes.
  • Participate in the Service Children’s Progression (SCiP) Alliance to develop partnerships with other HE providers to share good practice and deliver collaborative outreach.
  • Use the University of Winchester’s Festival of Friends toolkit resources to develop collaborative work that supports Service children in your region.
  • Explore how the University of Winchester’s resources for HE providers can help you to improve progression to HE for children from Armed Forces families, including outreach.
  • Sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant to demonstrate your commitment to supporting students from a UK Armed Forces background.
  • Develop CPD for teachers in key feeder schools supporting Service children, to help them encourage greater progression to HE, and understand the support available.
  • Progress tracking of Service children with an evaluation of the support provided, and an impact assessment to ensure support is effective.