Meet the pupils of Britain's last boarding school for military families

BOISTEROUS young girls and boys dart in and out of Trenchard House's ground-floor common room, dumping schoolbags, switching from proper shoes to comfy padded boots for stomping around the corridors of their dormitory.

Aside from the chaos of belongings, only footwear is neatly returned to appropriate cubbieholes against the wall. And above them, four clocks show the time at key locations around the globe: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal and Dunblane.

One time zone isn't represented on the wall, a clock missing but very present in the mind of 13-year-old Caitlin. While the newspapers talk up the possibility of another Falklands war over tensions with Argentina, Caitlin continues her studies at Queen Victoria School, Dunblane, knowing her parents are right in the thick of it on the islands. "My dad is in the RAF, based in the Falklands, and my mum lives with him there," she says quietly. "I have asked dad what his job is, and I can't really remember what he told me. I have just never really spoken to him about being worried because he needs to think about other things. I do worry a lot when they're out there because they're just so far away. When I'm not busy, I think about it."

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Just up and across the road from Trenchard House, on the school grounds, is the pool where Caitlin practises swimming. It helped her to swim a mile last October while she was visiting her parents in the Falklands, raising 135 for charity. "I had always wanted to do something for Help For Heroes because it's something that could affect me – my dad might need that help some day," she says, matter of factly. "I think about the risks a lot. It's probably harder than the distance, because I get to see them all the time. I tell myself he will always be safe and be there.

"You just have to get on with it. I think because we are all children of armed services parents, we get that attitude. It's something that you get naturally. I've never really discussed it with my parents."

All the youngsters at Queen Victoria School – QVS or the QV, to some locals – are children of armed service personnel, their places at the boarding school paid entirely by the Ministry of Defence. Come August, however, QVS will be the only school of its kind in the country – that's when the Duke of York's Royal Military School, in Dover, begins taking in non-military pupils.

Funding the places for pupils, maintaining the vast campus and offering a wealth of activities make up a small part of the "covenant" head teacher Wendy Bellars says exists between the nation and its services personnel. QVS is for children of forces staff who are Scottish, from a Scottish regiment or have served in Scotland. And for every place, there are two applicants. Even for just 275 pupils, the price to the MoD is not inconsiderable. The average boarding school costs at least 20,000 a year, and Bellars points out that this is before paying for extra facilities and opportunities available at QVS, which has 37 teaching staff and 83 administrative staff. Parents can pay up to another 1,050 over the year for the 'nice to haves' such as TV in the children's rooms, newspapers and such like.

Bellars points out that children of those who have died in service go to the top of the admissions list. "Potential pupils come for interviews with one or both parents, and we also require them to fill in quite a detailed form, for information such as how many years they have left to serve and their chances of being posted overseas. The longer they are likely to serve, the higher up the list they go. If the parent is retired, they have less chance. The MoD sees us as an aid to retention of the parents – they are more likely to stay if you can get a child in a stable situation at QV."

Every morning the bleary-eyed pupils file into the dining hall for breakfast, before walking to the medieval-style chapel for a hymn, a reading and the school news. At such an early hour, even the girls sing in bass. As the brief sermon talks about the internet and wireless towns, school Sergeant Major David Stacey snips the lengthy hair of a pupil in front of him with his fingers as a teasing reminder. "Will we be seeing you tonight?" he asks.

"Yes sir," mutters the youngster.

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Haircuts are being offered in the evening, since no pupil is allowed to have their hair touching their collar – girls can wear long locks tied back. But first, arithmetic.

Prateeksha – PK to her friends – is 11 years old and joined the school in August, leaving behind her family in Wiltshire, where her dad serves with the Gurkhas. The P7 pupil smiles as her long, black pigtails swish behind her. She is a quiet tour guide while her young pals crowd around, bubbling over with enthusiasm to share their love of the school. Under brightly coloured coats of arms, PK tackles a morning test.

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When the pupils turn to their English lessons, pencils get bitten, heads collapse in hands, one showing off a Help For Heroes bracelet. At morning break, PK heads for the library, then back to her home in Trenchard to dump her things before heading to the gym for drill practice.

All the P7 pupils are preparing for the Rookies Parade, where they become 'full Victorians', but standing still without fidgeting isn't the easiest task for youngsters. They are told to stand still for a minute. "If you move, you can be seen," yells a member of staff helping the exercise.

Sergeant Major Stacey chimes in, "Right or wrong, stand still all the time. Fingers together. Eyes and head right."

Row upon row of pupils try to find a rigid formation, but the shuffling feet innocently make uneven lines before their smallest – but loudest – colleagues yell marching orders. The drill is part of the military tradition of the school, which marked its centenary in 2008.

Adorning the walls at the entrance of the school are photos of the small early classes in the open and empty campus, today vastly expanded and shrouded by tall trees. Old military flags hang in the hall; a drum next to reception has been converted to receive donations.

Immediately after lunch, pupils from each year assemble for a school council meeting, voicing their demands for extra social nights, more variety for meals and longer hair. "We want boys to be able to grow their hair," says a daring S5 pupil. "Girls easily keep their hair above their collars and they get to dye their hair."

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Pointing to the boy, deputy head teacher Graham Carroll replies, "If you had been here 20 years ago, you would not have been able to have your hair that long. And that was not right. And you would not have been able to have your hair styled that way, and that was not right."

"But we are not in the army, navy or air force," the teenager retorts.

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"No, but it's an important part of our culture," says Carroll.

So is QVS a military school? Is it just a recruitment centre for the MoD? Pupils acknowledge it might look that way to outsiders. "I don't think it's really a military school," says Caitlin. "They do a lot of stuff for the military and it means a lot, but it's a lot less than it used to be. Now it's about all sorts of things, and they give you a wide range so you can go for anything you want."

Andrew, 15, is more pragmatic and knows that without war, without the MoD, he would not have had the opportunities QVS has given him. And that's not always an easy position to reconcile. "The stuff you do here, it's almost like they're trying to train you for the services," he says. His dad is a commander in the Royal Navy, serving in Scotland. "I did basic weapons training at 13. All boys go through a stage of wanting to play with guns. I can say now that I don't want to join the services, but they are valuable skills.

"When you hear news about a death or an attack in Afghanistan, it changes us. Some people do have parents out in the wars, and we had someone whose dad died in Afghanistan last year. It changes the way you look on life," he says. "Before here, I was not aware of the wars, but being here has opened my eyes in a way. QVS sets you up for growing up."

Sitting in the library of floor-to-ceiling windows in the late afternoon, Andrew becomes almost defensive against those who don't think about the children of those in the armed forces. "I know there are people out there that really don't like the military because of the stuff they do," he says bluntly. "In our own time here, it's always, 'What are you planning on doing,' and it's 'Oh, I'm joining the services.' Then it's, 'Why would you want to do that?' It's just because that's what people want to do, and all you can do is support them.

"You always wonder why do people go out and put themselves in that risk. But at the end of it most of them like the idea of serving their country, and it is a very brave thing to do. Most of them are much braver than I am.

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"Whenever we do hear something about people being shot or injured, because we're linked so closely with the MoD, it is always worse for us. We all sit and pay attention to what's said just out of respect."

Andrew's logic now becomes inescapable. "I'd like to think we don't rely so much on war, but if there wasn't war there wouldn't be an MoD, and if there wasn't an MoD there wouldn't be this school."

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Andrew's dad has not been posted to Iraq or Afghanistan during the conflicts, but Connor's mum has. The 17-year-old's mother served in Afghanistan with the Territorial Army last year, and it brought home the conflicting duality of QVS: it's a typical boarding school, but all pupils have parents in the forces. "At first when I heard she was going, I did think, 'Oh no, Mum shouldn't be going there,'" recounts the teenager, who is captain of the school's shooting team and the top shooter in Scotland.

"She used to keep secrets as well while I was at school. She wouldn't tell me that she was leaving the camp and going to more dangerous places because she didn't want me to be scared. When she told me after, I thought I wanted to be angry at her for not telling me, but I wasn't. She was just doing her job, and we were probably in touch every three or four days.

He continues, "It's weird because you know that your mum has been there, she has experienced it, but you can't imagine your family, your life being connected to that. Even though you see these things on the news, you don't see your mum being part of that. You disconnect yourself from what's going on. It makes you realise your mum is in a dangerous area. She is at war. She is fighting. Compared to a normal, average family, it's different."

Bellars was herself married to an RAF officer for 20 years and had a commission for ten years working with air cadets, so she was well versed in military life before she arrived at the school. "There's no doubt that the children are very proud of their connection to the armed services," she says. "When the parent died in Afghanistan last year, the way the school put its arm around the pupil and his family was great. I never cease to be amazed by the pupils – they always exceed expectations. I suppose you would say that about any child. They have this huge potential burden to carry, and they deal with that. It's a normal boarding school, but it's not. We have a mission to look after children of families who could not normally afford boarding education."

The original idea behind QVS was a way to commemorate Scottish soldiers and sailors killed in South Africa during the Boer Wars. Queen Victoria welcomed the idea, so when she died in 1901 it was decided the school would also become a living memorial to the late monarch. Money was raised in a national effort, which captured the imagination of the Scottish public. Every serviceman donated a day's pay and ordinary workers pitched in. The all-boys school was officially opened on 28 September 1908 by King Edward VII, with girls finally being admitted almost 90 years later, in 1996.

Four houses, named for military heroes – Trenchard, Haig, Wavell, Cunningham – are home to the pupils and provide a stability most have never previously known. The average pupil has moved between three or four schools before he or she arrives in P7. One youngster had been in 11 different schools as parents shifted assignments. "At first, it was really hard being so far away," says Caitlin, "but I can still talk to them and it's a lot better now. And I have grandparents nearby. My mum comes and and takes me to the Falklands for Easter, summer, Christmas and October half-term breaks. It never gets easier but you learn to cope with it. The school keeps you pretty busy."

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Pupils have nine periods of lessons each day, as well as required Combined Cadet Force (CCF) in S2 and S3, and endless sporting opportunities – from discus to basketball to hockey. There are three rugby pitches, a football pitch, tennis courts, a sports hall and a gym. All pupils must do PDD (piping, dancing or drumming), carrying on a tradition that has led the Pipes and Drums of Queen Victoria School to play at Scotland international rugby fixtures at Murrayfield since the 1920s.

In December, PK's dad journeyed up to see his daughter's Rookie Parade – the first chance to see her marching, and following just partially in his footsteps. "It was quite hard to leave my parents but I never got homesick for some reason," says PK. "My friend is homesick most of the time, so we go over to her and give her lots of hugs. In any other school you can't talk to them about military stuff. But here they have mums and dads in the armed forces, so you can talk about it.

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"I sometimes worry about my dad, that he might have to go to Afghanistan and something bad might happen. Sometimes I ask my dad if he has to go – he says he might have to if they really, really needed him there. He tells me not to worry."

While clocks on house walls mark the time in war zones and on military bases, the children left behind count down the minutes until breaks, extracurricular activities and family reunions. The pupils here share a bond and understanding of their parents that is unique, not just because of the separation for weeks and months. They are normal teenagers and youngsters, but they have found a deep connection with the service to the nation provided by mum or dad, or both. "Before I came to the school I was falling out with my mum a lot," says Connor. "And a lot of people have said since I've been here that it has changed me into a different person, nicer. It definitely helped the relationship between us, and we are a lot closer. I think of her as a person differently. If you're at this school for a long time, and then eventually you get back your mum, you realise you need her. She's still Mum, but she's closer and means a lot more to me."

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, April 11, 2010