Anyone who has watched the Netflix series The Crown will have gathered that the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was, as a younger man, an outward bound type whose forthright approach to life was nurtured at the no-frills boarding school on the north east coast of Scotland, known as Gordonstoun.
It was there that the restless Greek and Danish Prince dealt with the death of his beloved sister and her family in a plane crash by throwing himself into bitterly cold cross country runs and outdoor manual work for the school’s upkeep.
This physically challenging approach to education was the brainchild of German Jewish educator Kurt Hahn – the school’s founder – whose philosophy was one of self-improvement through endurance tests, physical fitness, the acquisition of manual skills and compassion in the service of others.
Prince Philip sent his eldest son and heir to the throne, Prince Charles there, hoping it would channel his energies and nurture his spirit as it had his own. Charles was famously meant to have called it “Colditz in kilts.” But in an interview with The Observer during the 1970s, he offered a rather milder explanation for his struggle to adapt to the school. “”I didn’t enjoy school as much as I might have, but that was only because I’m happier at home than anywhere else,” he said.
It might not have been everyone’s cup of tea but such was Prince Philip’s enthusiasm for Hahn’s self-improvement program, he suggested that a version of it be made available to 15-to-18 year old boys and, in 1956, the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme was launched – two years before Charles began at Gordonstoun.
Based on Hahn’s solution to The Six Declines of Modern Youth, what is now the world’s leading young person’s achievement award was put in the hands of a retired brigadier in the British army, Lord Hunt, who led the first successful Mount Everest climb in 1953. A year later, a group of young lads from Woodrow High House London Youth charity were sent out into the wilds.
The Duke of Edinburgh scheme is still considered a badge of resilience, initiative and leadership skills today and operates, on an equal footing for boys and girls, in 144 countries. In Spain, around 750 14-to-24 year olds signed up last year, including a number of students from King’s College.
Highly rated by both employers and universities, the scheme is divided into different areas to cater to different personality types. No longer do you have to be the kind of person who relishes wild weather swims or hiking with a rucksack of rocks. There is a volunteering section for the more caring among us and the fitness and skill-driven challenges can be juggled according to individual strengths.
The expedition, however, is mandatory, with varying lengths and degrees of difficulty depending on whether the goal is bronze, silver or gold. At King’s College Soto de Viñuelas, Gold Dof E coordinator Philippa Bromhead has just returned with students from a trial expedition in the Gredos mountains and took a group from Year 13 to Wales for a qualifying expedition several months back.
Down in Murcia, King’s DofE coordinator Sally Bengtsson explains what the students are up against and what they get out of these expeditions, which, in the case of the Gold Award scheme, last four days and three nights.
“The biggest challenge is the weather,” she says, “as it is usually too hot and they get sunburned and thirsty – as they can only carry so much water – or it is very cold at night and they have trouble sleeping. Blisters are also a problem, especially for longer distances.”
On the upside, she adds, “The pupils generally get a great feeling of independence when they realise they can be self-sufficient for a few days. Some really enjoy the cooking and they all love being together in the tents and also getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”