News today (link HERE) that the UK government is spending significant sums on sending military and ‘Senior Civil Service’ children to private schools in the UK. This has led to a number of debates on twitter and elsewhere which suggest that somehow only an elite get access to this perk, while others (the mainstream rank and file) are mysteriously denied it. Underpinning it all was a sense that somehow it was wrong for British public sector workers to receive funding from the State to send their children to good schools.
The debate about Boarding School Allowance (or CEA as its known in the military) is a long one. It owes its roots to the days back when large chunks of the armed forces and government were based overseas across the Empire, Dominions and beyond. Until the 1960s movements occurred mainly by troopships, taking families and personnel out to their stations on a leisurely journey that lasted many weeks. Once in post, people would remain there for potentially 2-3 years at a time, often without returning home to the UK.
There was a need to ensure that people were able to ensure the best possible education for their children, as many of these posts did not necessarily have the highest education standards. A form of subsidy was made available, which over time has evolved into a system whereby HM Government pays a reasonable amount of funding to permit parents to send their children to school in the UK (usually boarding school) whilst they remain overseas. Even though its much easier to move between locations now, avoiding disruption to education remains essential.
Today the UK’s overseas military deployments tend to take one of three forms – a short term operational tour, such as OP HERRICK where the parent deploys as a member of the unit but is not accompanied. There are several garrison locations, such as Cyprus or Gibraltar, where families can come over too and where a wide range of schools and other life support services are available (its often forgotten that the MOD is responsible for a large number of primary and secondary schools across the globe) – this essentially keeps it ‘in house’. Finally there are a number of isolated ‘married accompanied’ postings (e.g. if you are married then you can bring your family with you), such as defence attaches, exchange jobs or other very specialised roles which may see one or two UK personnel based in a location for a couple of years. Many people in these posts have school age children who they prefer to keep at home in the UK for schooling, often as the local schools aren't appropriate for their children.
These isolated posts tend to be for more senior personnel – who in turn tend to be older and married with kids. There is often a perception that the allowances are held back from junior ranks, when in fact this is utterly untrue. The reality though is the sort of posts you’d send someone overseas too usually require senior NCO’s and officers (e.g a small Embassy Defence Section will usually have one or two SO1 grade officers and an SNCO admin officer to support). This, coupled with the age profile means that baring the odd Private hanging on for 22yrs to get rumoured his RSMs pension, there are few Privates with children who need secondary school education out there, and practically no posts where Privates are required to go married accompanied overseas. This combines to form the perception that the system is biased against juniors, when in fact there aren’t really many conceivable circumstances where a Private is going to need call on boarding school allowances.
Meanwhile the Foreign Office presence overseas has changed too, from the days when embassies had a large UK staff at all grades doing everything from visas through to the ambassador, to now when the majority of FCO employees at a British Embassy are usually local or third party nationals. Cuts made over the last 20 years have vastly reduced the posting opportunities for junior FCO staff, with very few admin officials or junior desk officers now going overseas. This work is instead done by locals who are on a totally different salary package. Humphrey has worked out of many UK embassies over the years, and one thing is clear – the British Embassy usually has very few FCO ‘Brits’ in it. Those that are there tend to be more senior in age and position than would have been the case 20 – 30 years ago.
Finally in recent years there has been a growth in the number of other Civil Servants working overseas, including from departments like what is now ‘Dept for Industry & Trade’ and DFID. These posts, particularly DFID ones, require people to deploy out to some very odd countries with a very poor quality of life and education. It may be possible to go accompanied, or the Post may have a reasonable primary school, but often essential secondary education is missing in the sort of countries DFID staff deploy to.
What this all means is that there is a cadre of military and civilian officials at a certain level of seniority overseas at a point in their lives when they are likely to have families of school age children. Posting overseas isn’t mandatory -particularly for the Civil Service, and the people who you are sending have usually got many years of experience behind them. They represent an asset of real value, one that has a lot of expertise, knows how things are done and would make a real difference to the job they’ll do, which in turn benefits the UK. What you don’t want to do is force them to a position where they walk away rather than go overseas. Accordingly, ensuring people going overseas get access to the right package to look after their children’s interests is essential. If you don’t offer them the ability to continue educating their children to UK standards, then they will likely resign rather than be forcibly posted, and all those years of investment will have been lost.
More widely civil service recruitment has changed a lot over the years, and direct entry into high level jobs is possible for those with the right experience. Its not been widely realised, but all Senior Civil Service (SCS or 1*) and above jobs are openly advertised for anyone to apply for. Many other jobs below this level are now recruited in the same way – open competition to help bring in skills and experience. DFID in particular regularly recruit for people to come across from industry with the right knowledge and experience to help in specific advisory roles like trade or finance.
This recruiting process is also scrupulously fair – it is not about ‘old school ties’ – due to the manner in which it has been anonymised, interview panels for all civil service jobs do not see applicants name, educational background or school, or any identifying characteristics. People are sifted on ability, not where they went to school. This is perhaps not really understood in a nation which is convinced that there is somehow an incestuous self-serving ruling elite, closed to outsiders.
If you want to attract good talent from outside the civil service, particularly when you then want to send them to a variety of challenging overseas locations, you need to make certain that these people want to join you. The private sector finds it easier to offer either significantly higher salaries, or large educational allowances as inducements to get people to go overseas. The public sector is much more limited in the scale of the offer it can make – education allowances are one of the ways that you can persuade people to come across to go to Bongozwanalopia if they are worried about putting their kids through school.
If you don’t offer these opportunities, then the chances of the people the UK needs in these jobs applying to go fill them reduces significantly. The Civil Service is in a battle for talent and it needs to be able to attract the very best the country has – the more senior posts overseas need to come with a package to attract heavy hitters from industry who will take a huge pay cut just to enter the civil service. Get it wrong and they won’t even bother applying.
What has been lost in this artificial furore is the reality that this about setting the conditions to get people to volunteer to go to these places. It is in the UKs national interests to ensure that these jobs are filled, because if they are not our ability to influence, shape and help create outcomes that suit the UK is reduced. If in the spirit of attacking a perceived ‘elite’ for the audacity of wanting to send their kids to a school (at significant personal cost) means that these allowances are cut or changed, then it will only damage the UK as a whole.
Retention measures cost a lot of money, recruiting and training and re-growing talent over 20 years takes even more time and money. The problem feels more about a UK existential angst at the idea of people going to a ‘posh’ school and a sense of lazy class snobbery that somehow others are being seen off rather than any fact-based assessment.
There is absolutely a need to ensure that only the people who genuinely need these allowances get them though. The days of very average Army Majors owning a nice house in the country, rotating between a couple of third rate jobs in the same location and never moving for years, yet claiming CEA to send their kids to boarding have pretty much gone. There needs to be a debate about the level to which CEA can be claimed in the UK – particularly where an individual is based in a static garrison or port town. For both the RN and RAF, as they move to a smaller number of fixed bases (and the Army moves to certain garrison towns), the hope is that most people will have far more stability in their lives.
This in turn opens up a wider debate about Forces accommodation, and whether the solution is to expect an individual to find their own ‘home base’ and weekly commute to it while living in military single living accommodation (or move and rent locally at their own cost). Much of the military social model reflects a 1960s Britain of a married family with young children and one working parent, not the modern world where couples cohabit, children arrive much later and where both partners usually have full time careers. Trying to restructure the military accommodation and support offer to reflect this will be an enormously challenging experience in what is an inherently change resistant organisation.
Yet there will always be a need for some form of overseas educational support for those military and civilians posted a long way from home, working in often difficult and at times dangerous conditions, to help keep the UK safe. To quibble over the small retention costs of enabling these staff to put their families interests first, so that they can in turn do their job seems churlish. By allowing our best national security officials working overseas to send their kids to boarding schools and focus on doing these challenging jobs, the next wars are quite literally being won on the playing fields of Eton…