Meet the expert

Meet the Expert - Philip Dent

Welcome to 'Meet the Expert', our series bringing you informative interviews with Armed Forces researchers, policy makers and service providers. Read on to learn about current work, aspirations for progress and future work, and insights into expert perspectives on key issues impacting ex-Service personnel and their families.

mceu_39351721711713347128665.pngIn this issue, we interviewed Philip Dent, Director of the Service Children's Progression Alliance (SCiP) Alliance. The SCiP Alliance is a partnership of organisations focused on improving outcomes for children from Armed Forces families. Bringing together practitioners, researchers, policymakers and funders to build a stronger evidence base, better policy, and enhanced support for Service children’s education and progression.

1. Please tell us about your background and how you came to be involved in work relating to the Armed Forces Community.

I joined the University of Winchester in 2015 to lead a research project exploring higher education access for Service children. Before then, I was in the same place as most others in the education world, asking, “What is a Service child?”.

I worked in the manufacturing industry before re-training as a secondary teacher and quickly found that my passion was for a wider concept of children’s thriving than for their exam success. I swiftly got into cross-curricular learning, metacognition, and the determinants of progression through the life course. While leading whole-school support programmes in a school serving one of the most deprived wards in England, I designed and deployed a model for what I describe as 'whole-person, whole-journey' progression. Pursuing that mission, I moved into higher education access. Wherein, for a decade, I worked on regional, multi-partner initiatives, was an adviser on national higher education access and research strategy, ran a social enterprise undertaking research, consultancy and training on 'whole-person, whole-journey' progression and additionally co-founded a national network for professionals supporting children and young people with experience of the care system.

At the time, Hampshire had more Service children than any other county, and the question of support for Service children came up. I worked with the MOD to deliver our further and higher education research project combined with novel practice supporting Service children’s further and higher education decision-making. Since then, all my work has centred on realising thriving lives for Service children – the vision of the Service Children’s Progression Alliance (SCiP Alliance), which was founded in 2017 through a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the University of Winchester and I have had the privilege of leading the Alliance ever since.

2. What projects are you currently working on and how do they fit into the bigger picture of understanding and supporting the Armed Forces Community?

We are always working on several projects and the majority combine research with an immediate, real world application in mind. Our Under the Radar research highlighted the evidence for tailored support for Service children accessing higher education and was published just before Christmas, but having successfully changed Office for Students policy as a result, we are still working on maximising its impact on the behaviours of universities in England.

We have just started two allied research projects exploring Service children’s experiences in early years and higher education with a view to developing effective practice toolkits for professionals working in those settings. Thriving Through Childhood and Beyond is a £300,000 Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust-funded project that will extend our existing Thriving Lives Toolkit for schools across the life course.

We are also delivering a series of other development projects related to the Thriving Lives Toolkit, including expanding the bank of case studies exemplifying practice aligned to each of the Toolkit’s seven principles, an e-learning platform to support professional development and an innovation programme funded by Wellington College helping schools to trial new approaches to Service children’s support, which includes help to improve the quality of schools’ evaluation of their practice.

3. What other areas and issues relating to the Armed Forces Community are you especially passionate about or feel need further attention? Please expand on this and tell us about them, as much as you can.

Research exploring different characteristics of Service children’s identities highlights the huge diversity within the group and the complexity of the interplay between the phenomena of Armed Forces life. Currently, this is perhaps most markedly so in further education and the 16-19 phase, making this a particular priority at the moment. We have undertaken scoping work starting to identify the context and systemic challenges  and completed research honing in on the experiences of Service children in this unique phase in their education journeys, captured in our report Diversity Meets Complexity. Nevertheless, significant challenges persist especially as a result of the lack of robust data capturing the scale and characteristics of the cohort.

As in other education phases, mobility and separation from parents can present significant challenges. However, the unique nature of the 16-19 phase through which children transition into adulthood and relationships between students, their parents, and education providers change dramatically, makes solutions more complex. Leaders and practitioners in colleges and other settings also have generally low understanding of Armed Forces life. While there is a genuine desire to meet their needs, considerable resource limitations and poor data can inhibit access to universal support and the tailoring of provision for young people from Armed Forces families.

We are working to test a draft framework for colleges developed from the research already undertaken, but establishing and maintaining appropriate support will require sustained and dedicated people resources that are currently not in place. We are working on that.

4. What are your future aspirations for the impact and utilization of your or your organisation's wider work?

Aside from the large number of research and development projects we are running, our core activity is helping the community of professionals with a stake in helping Service children thrive to collaborate effectively and continually enhance the impact of their work on children and young people’s lives. Our 2022-26 strategy combines these two linked ambitions to grow the community and our collective impact. The SCiP Alliance is supported by a very small team. However, it is also is a large and diverse community of researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders who share in the vision of thriving lives for Service children. Almost 1,000 stakeholders engage in the UK-wide Hub Network of 12 Hubs (our thirteenth Hub will launch in April) where they collaborate to understand the unique needs of Service children in their areas and how best to meet them.

Our ambitions are to bring into the community, the thousands of other allies whose energy, expertise and efforts will be key to achieving the shared vision and to improve the work we do to help them strengthen the evidence base and the action they take in response.

5. What do you think are the key challenges impacting current Veterans and their families, and how do you think policy or provision of services can be best used to address them?

For Service children in Veteran families, the biggest challenge is that so little is known about their experiences. I am concerned that the lack of agency held by children means we must work much harder to ensure their views are heard and experiences understood. Good progress has been made in understanding the needs of Veterans and considerable work is underway deploying services and support to meet their needs. However the impact on their families is only very slowly coming into view. We often observe children being last in line and that needs to change. This, perhaps, explains why over one quarter of the recommendations in the Government’s Living in Our Shoes report [1] concern children and young people but it is proving so difficult to make large-scale change a reality in their lives. I would like to see large-scale investigations to understand the experience of leaving the military from the perspectives of children and young people to kick-start work on the services and support needed to make these transitions successful.

6. What do you think will be the leading challenges for the next generation of Veterans and how do you think policy or provision of services can be best used to address them?

I often find myself reminding audiences that Service children are first-of-all children. With this in mind, we have a frame within which to assess how Armed Forces life affects their experiences of being “just children” and to identify additional experiences peculiar to the cohort. The mental health crisis facing young people, allied but not limited to the impact of social media, may present significant challenges as global security brings greater uncertainty and hyper-connected children and young people are more aware of it. Service children with additional learning needs are already known to experience additional disadvantage if they are more mobile, so the well-documented crisis in funding for additional support could hit Service children disproportionately as the decade progresses. Trends in military operations and policy should be considered for their impact on Service children. For example, an increased state of readiness for Armed Forces personnel or changes in the accommodation model could have detrimental impacts on Service Children if appropriate services and support are not developed in advance of changes and routinely reviewed.

Underpinning these, often unpredictable, challenges is the need to establish principles and routines that cement Service children’s impact assessments and robust horizon-scanning into long-term military planning, especially given that the impact of military Service on family life is a well-evidenced barrier to recruitment and retention.

7. Can you tell us about your favourite part of your current work with the Armed Forces Community and why?

I love what the Alliance is about – an ambitious vision for Service children, a genuine commitment to hearing the lived experience of these remarkable young people and to realising meaningful change in their lives, and inclusive and purposeful collaboration to make this all happen. Everything we do is done in partnership and the huge achievements to date are the result of the work of thousands of allies in the SCiP Alliance community. I get my joy from an “anything-is-possible” approach and seeing that ambition for Service children become a reality through collaboration with committed partners as remarkable as the young people we serve.

8. Given unlimited funding and time, what would be your dream project to undertake involving the Armed Forces community?

It would not take a huge investment to fill the massive gap in grass-roots support for local communities throughout the UK. What the SCiP Alliance does at UK-wide, national, and regional levels is needed in local communities, so that families, schools, charities, youth workers and military partners can use their invaluable local, first-hand knowledge to focus their collective efforts effectively on the unique needs of each Service child. At the top of the list for that support would be space and opportunity for Service children to develop their agency, be heard on the things that matter most to them and work with adults to make meaningful change.

Many thanks to Philip Dent for sharing his insights.

Catch us next month for another interesting and informative interview with an expert from the Armed Forces Community.


[1]. Walker, J., Selous, A. & Misca, G. (2020). Living in our Shoes: Understanding the needs of UK Armed Forces families. Ministry of Defence, London. 

Related articles