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When Dad's in Afghanistan for Christmas

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Sixteen-year-old Jenni usually spends Christmas in Tenerife with her family. But with her father away serving in Afghanistan, she will be spending the festive period at home in Colchester with her mum and older brother. While he has missed a few of her birthdays, it is the first time in five years her father has been away for Christmas.

Jenni usually keeps in touch via handwritten letters, but this year, along with eight fellow pupils at the Duke of York's royal military school in Dover, she has recorded a surprise Christmas video message for her dad. In it, she jokes about him building sandcastles and serving Christmas dinner to the corporals, but behind the stoicism, it is clear she is finding the separation tough.

There are around 90,000 UK service children at any one time, with around 10,000 in the 43 Service Children Education (SCE) schools abroad. For children like this, some of whom have moved four or five times by the time they hit their teens, school can offer much-needed stability.

In recognition of this, the Labour government made changes to school admissions regulations, placing children with parents in the armed services at the top of the priority list in the allocation of school places, just behind children in local authority care.

The Duke of York's is one of just two boarding schools specifically for children with parents in the military. For its pupils, who range from 11-18, being around young people from similar backgrounds can be a real lifeline. "I went to one primary school just for a year, where I was one of only a few [children with parents in the armed services]," says Katie, a year 10 student at the school, whose dad is also serving in Afghanistan. "That was quite hard because no one really grasped the concept of having to move around and only being there for a year. You try to explain it as best you can, but they didn't really understand. Here everyone gets it."

"These are little kids with big problems on their shoulders," says Annabel Jones, drama teacher and junior housemaster at the school. The pupils seem remarkably brave and mature beyond their years, but the vice-principal, Beverley Birchley, says they are rarely as resilient as they seem.

As in any boarding school, homesickness is common, but for some pupils, there is also the worry of parents serving abroad and the family left behind. "If I phone my mum and she hasn't heard from dad, that's when I worry," says year 8 pupil Harry, whose father is currently serving in Afghanistan. "I worry about her sometimes, as she is on her own with my two younger brothers."

It is not uncommon for the anxiety to bubble over, says Jones. "It comes out in different ways. You will get anger, upset, you might see a decline in work, and you might see withdrawal from friendships or there can even be a lack of respect for members of staff."

On the day I visited the school, one of the students, whose father is serving in Afghanistan, changed his mind about talking to me because he had just heard his older brother had also been posted there. "It just gets too much sometimes," says Birchley.

She recalls one child who was sent to her for a telling off after being involved in several fights. "When I asked him why he wanted to hit out, he burst into tears. Although the school hadn't yet been informed, he had been told by his mum that his dad was going away. He was angry. Once that had come into the open, we were able to sort the whole thing out."

Strong pastoral care is vital, and Jones says she has to be "mum, dad and big sister" to the children. "I tend to be less of a teacher figure. I like it to feel like a home. So it's pyjamas and X Factor."

As well as offering high-quality pastoral care, the school has an excellent academic record: last year, 100% of pupils scored at least five A*-C grades at GCSE level. But there is a big question mark hanging over its future. The hundred-year-old buildings are in need of repair and refurbishment, which is the main reason why the school, which was formerly funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), converted to an academy last year.

But since the new coalition government came to power and put the brakes on the Building Schools for the Future programme, the school's building plans (which would have allowed the school to double its intake to 720) have been put on hold.

Headteacher Charles Johnson is keen to increase the number of pupils from non-military, but mobile, families (such as diplomats or those working for NGOs). But while the school has received the £10m promised by the MoD, and used it to build new sixth-form accommodation and refurbish the chapel and dining room, the remaining £30m needed to complete the building programme and secure the school's future is currently frozen.

Last week, the government announced some additional funding for children with parents in the armed forces under the government's Pupil Premium scheme, which will probably be a few hundred pounds for each family.

But proposed cuts to armed forces allowances could mean this is a drop in the ocean for military families. Following the strategic defence and security review in October, in addition to reducing the number of armed services personnel, the MoD is looking to cut the armed forces allowances budget. This could affect the Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA), which helps to pay up to 90% of boarding school fees for children over eight for eligible families (typically those with parents who have to relocate regularly). And fewer personnel could mean schools like the Duke of York's Royal Military School and others with high numbers of forces children could struggle to maintain numbers.

But fewer armed forces personnel and a potential reduction in the CEA could threaten the survival of schools with significant numbers of forces children on roll. While the Duke of York's Royal Military School and the MoD-funded Queen Victoria School, are the only boarding schools specifically for military children, independent schools like Wellington College and Warminster School (both in Wiltshire), which take high numbers of forces children, could also be affected.

An MoD spokesperson said: "It was unsustainable to continue with the current package of civilian and military allowances and the MoD is looking to reduce these costs by around £275m per year. No final decision has been taken and we are currently looking at options. We are sensitive to the impact these changes could have and are working to ensure any new package is consistent with the priority this government attaches to the Military Covenant and to supporting our deployed forces in Afghanistan."

Dawn McCafferty, chairman of the RAF Families Federation says the CEA is a vital source of support for military families. "It is a huge decision to send your child as young as eight to boarding school and one that is not made easily. Parents who decide to do this are trying to protect their children from the impact of mobility, to give them some stability."

While the prospect of cuts is a worry, particularly for forces parents who have children at boarding school at the moment, McCafferty believes the CEA will not be affected. "There are lots of rumours about cuts to the CEA, but at the moment, all signs point to the MoD reducing mobility … and the requirement for forces families to move as often as they do."