An all-round test of excellence

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
50 years ago the Duke of Edinburgh gave his name to a skills, activities and community service award scheme developed from one at his old school, Gordonstoun. Now the Scottish Executive is considering it as part of A Curriculum for Excellence and a way to recognise pupils' non-academic achievements, reports Neil Munro

One wonders if Kurt Hahn knew what he was starting - apart, that is, from the school he founded at Gordonstoun in the improbable setting of the Morayshire coast.

But the German educator, who was the inspiration behind what, almost 20 years later, became the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme, was more ahead of his time than the spartan mythology of "cold showers and physical rigour" would suggest.

Prince Philip, who has lent his time and name to the initiative, recalls a conversation with Hahn who, he said, had four major concerns about the development of young people: "the decline of compassion, the decline of skills, the decline of physical fitness and the decline of initiative."

This conversation from the early 1950s sounds uncannily like the mantra of the "four capacities" in A Curriculum for Excellence.

Now, 50 years on from the start of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, in which over 3.5 million have participated in the UK and 6 million in more than 110 countries, it seems it will come centre stage in Scotland. The Scottish Executive is keen to use it as a way of broadening and certificating the achievements of pupils.

Nearly 5,000 certificates were issued in Scotland last year, but although all 32 local authorities are licensed to operate the scheme, only half of state schools offer it.

Janet Shepherd, the director of the scheme in Scotland, makes no secret of the organisation's ambition "to strengthen the award by continuing to broaden and extend its reach to the many communities that comprise contemporary Scotland - and that, one day, all young people aged 14-25 who want to participate in the award will be able to do so".

Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education, who chairs the committee for the award in Scotland, says its raison d'etre fits neatly with the Scottish Executive's inclusion and skills agenda.

"The perception that we are about hairy-kneed public schoolboys romping through the heather couldn't be further from the truth," he says. In fact, at the last count (2004-05) 56 per cent of participants were female and 44 per cent male.

On Monday and Tuesday next week, delegates from more than 60 countries will be in Scotland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the scheme and attend seminars. The event is being held, appropriately, in Edinburgh which, apart from the royal connection, is home to Sir Tom Farmer, the philanthropist and founder of Kwik Fit, who took over from Prince Philip as chairman of the UK trustees of the award in 2001.

Sir Tom also describes the scheme's mission in terms that would not be unfamiliar to those driving A Curriculum for Excellence. "We are part of a growing awareness that young people have not just got to exercise their brains, but also have to have self-belief and self-confidence and self-motivation," he says.

Miss Shepherd says preparations for the link-up with the Scottish Executive's plans are nearing the final stages. "The aim is to find ways of offering all young people the opportunity to participate in the award, not just those keen, motivated ones who get the parent consent forms and enrolment fee in first, or the particularly targeted group of disadvantaged young people.

"We would like to find ways in which we can build capacity to make sure this becomes a reality."

The organisation has plans to pilot the award in several schools across Scotland next session, Mr Robertson says. "This will be particularly helpful in recognising the all-round achievements of young people, something that is at the heart of the vision for A Curriculum for Excellence."

It is seen as a win-win vehicle, combining the reform plans of the Scottish Executive and the expansionist aims of the award trustees.

The award is structured so that success at any of the three levels - bronze, silver and gold - depends on completing activities in all four sections: volunteering in the community, physical recreation, skills and expedition. Each person's programme is intended to be their own personal learning plan.

Each of the four sets of activities is more than it seems, also providing a symmetry for the aims of the two organisations. The expedition section, for example, is not just about taking to the hills. It is intended to test teamwork, communication, negotiation, decision-making and self-reliance.

Perhaps because of a wider realisation that the award takes this broader approach, it seems to have moved beyond the middle-class associations which grew up around the royal and Gordonstoun connections. Cross-party support has even come its way.

Karen Whitefield, the Labour MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, who hosted a reception for award winners and their supporters at the Scottish Parliament in March, said elements in the award, such as volunteering and teamwork, "can play an important part in challenging and changing the behaviour of some of our most troubled young people".

Christine Grahame, the South of Scotland SNP member, believes that taking part in award activities "creates self-confidence that is earned rather than just given, so it is the best kind of self-confidence". She calls it "a slow-burning achievement, which has greater depth".

Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Central Scotland, says the award "teaches people tenacity on a wide and classless basis".

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Tories' education spokesman and MSP for Lothian, points out that employers also regard the award as an ally.

In research conducted recently among 27 of the UK's largest private industries, aimed at finding out what they thought about young people's attributes and skills, employers ranked taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award as the experience they prized most in would-be recruits - ahead of work experience, community activities, Young Enterprise and being a school prefect.

Asked to rate the characteristics they valued most when selecting applicants for jobs, the organisations responded (in order): leadership, teamwork, self-motivation, communication, confidence, consideration and the ability to learn. These are the very qualities in young people for which the Scottish Executive wants to harness the involvement of the award.


Roddy Ross earned his first Duke of Edinburgh's Award badge 50

years ago and is now a member of the organisation's UK expeditions panel and trains people who run activities for the award.

'It's a balanced programme that impels you to do things you wouldn't normally do. It creates a fellowship that draws people together because they've been through a demanding experience'

Sarah Booth raised funds in Dumfries and Galloway to finance her trip to The Gambia, where she spent seven months teaching maths and English.

'It's not about what I got out of it that matters, but what I was able to give back to a community in another country'

David Morton, who is studying law and French at Aberdeen University, started his award course while a pupil at Millburn Academy in Inverness. He now holds a silver and has the expedition to complete for gold. David was one of 12 Highland pupils who went to The Gambia a couple of years ago to fit a computer suite at a skills centre in Bakau.

'If I was to think about what I got out of taking part in the award, it would be the sheer range of opportunities and experiences, from being exposed to a whole new way of life and culture in The Gambia to addressing MSPs at the parliament, not to mention having to grapple with the challenges of the Scottish mountains'


* 1934 Moray Badge started at Gordonstoun

* 1956 Duke of Edinburgh's Award for Boys is piloted, with four sections: rescue and public service, expeditions, pursuits and projects, and fitness

* 1958 Duke of Edinburgh's Award for girls is piloted, with sections on design for living, adventure, interests, and service. Also, pilot projects start in 11 Commonwealth countries

* 1969 Duke of Edinburgh's Award for Young People aged 14-21 is launched, with only the service, expeditions and interests sections open to everyone

* 1980 one programme for all aged 14-25, with sections on: service, expeditions, and skills and physical recreation, with an additional residential project at Gold level

* 1956-2005 1,573,995 awards gained in the UK 2004-05 Scotland figures

* 11,380 new entrants to the award scheme: 6,839 at bronze level; 2,968 at silver; 1.573 at gold. This compares to 145,577 across the UK

* 2,786 young women and 2,056 young men (4,842 in all) gained awards: 2,871 bronze; 1,451 silver; 520 gold. This compares to 31,580 young women and 26,183 young men (58,063 in all) across the UK

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today