Duke of Edinburgh's Award can still open doors today

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, February 2, 2016

My 12-year spell as a UK trustee of the Duke of Edinburgh's (DofE) Award came to an end last year. As Prince Philip put it to me when I had an audience with him in November, "you've certainly put in a good stint".

At a trustees' dinner to thank me for my contribution, I made a speech covering three things. I acknowledged I'd been lucky enough to meet a range of exceptional individuals - members of the trustee body and supporters of the award - who I would never have met in other pathways of my life. I commended the senior staff for maintaining the level of young people's engagement with the DofE at a time when youth services more broadly had been subjected to draconian, indeed vicious, financial cuts and commensurate reductions in provision. And I noted that, although the DofE is still associated in many people's minds with privilege and public schools, this does not have to be the case. Indeed, during my tenure as a trustee, I hope I had supported the reach of the DofE into the lives of more ordinary and sometimes even more at-risk and marginalised young people.

This year is the DofE's 60th anniversary. Some might question its continuing relevance and maintain that in keeping with its age, it should be pensioned off. Some of my students convey critical recollections of their own participation - about "going through the motions" and "only doing it for the CV". On the other hand, I bump into assessors and groups of young people in the Brecon Beacons who celebrate that involvement and the challenge it represents. And it should be a challenge, invoking a methodology of non-formal learning that is part of what might be called out-of-school education - the idea behind youth services when they were statutorily established in 1944. A decade later, educator Kurt Hahn approached the Duke of Edinburgh to lend his name to an idea of a programme of personal and social development that could be a "do-it-yourself toolkit in the art of civilised living".

This is quaint language, but it derives from Hahn's concerns about the "declines" in British society. He was worried about the declining health and physical fitness of young people, a decline in their skills and competencies, a receding of their commitment to "service" (now called volunteering) and a decline in their capacity for being and working together. In response to his concerns, he framed a four-part, three-level programme that could be followed by young people between the ages of 14 and 25. The first Gold Award recipients got their certificates and badges from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1960. He continues to preside over Gold Award ceremonies whenever he can.

The award has spread throughout the world to 120 countries and territories. It has some natural resonance in those countries that remain or were formerly associated with British society through the Commonwealth. But it is finding a place and position in many countries that have no such traditions or associations. One million young people worldwide are taking part in the award.

Just as I was retiring from my involvement with the UK DofE, I was invited to become a trustee of the foundation that governs the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award for Young People. This is my next challenge. One million young people sounds a lot, but it is a drop in the ocean. As in the UK, there must be the triple goal of increasing participation, strengthening completion and extending the reach of the award to those who either have not heard of it or think that it is not the sort of thing for them.

The award is certainly good for the CV. There can be national branding that does not need to use the British royal brand, but the international branding can provide a currency and credibility beyond national borders. Young people can opt for both. But the award must not be considered only in those terms. Hahn's concerns have not gone away. Arguably, in most parts of the world, health, skills, volunteering and working together remain matters of great importance - for life and work. Civic responsibility and community involvement should not be subordinated to preoccupations with labour market futures and employability. Participation in the award can prepare young people for both.

The DofE Award is no magic wand. Its founder was unsure what it might achieve but believed it to be worth a go. Sixty years on, as a tried and tested vehicle for experiential learning, it is worth building up, not - for whatever reason - tearing up and trying to replace with something else.

For, as once famously said, if you are going to reinvent the wheel, make sure it is a round one.

Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of South Wales.

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