Zoom meeting

Tue, Apr 20th 2021 at 1:30 pm - 2:15 pm

Ian McAlpine talks about the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.
VOT Tony Webb

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme (DofE) has been, quite rightly, brought to attention recently due to the death of Prince Philip, so I thought it might be of interest for members, if I gave you some information about the scheme, and my involvement over nearly 20 years.

So, let’s start by looking at the background to the scheme.

The Duke of Edinburgh was approached, in the 1950s, by the educationalist Dr Kurt Hahn, his ex-headmaster, at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, to set up a national programme to support young people’s development. The Duke of Edinburgh spoke to the Minister of Education, and a number of national youth organisations, and a pilot was started led by Sir John Hunt.

The pilot was very successful, and The Duke of Edinburgh's Award began officially in July 1956, with Prince Philip as its Patron. It gives young people aged between 14 and 24, regardless of ability, gender, culture, background or location, an opportunity to become active citizens, experience challenge and adventure, and develop vital attributes and skills for life.

So what is DofE? The Award is concerned with empowering young people to take greater responsibility for their own lives, to discover new talents, and to take positive action in the community and, therefore, has a major contribution to make to the youth work curriculum.

As an extra-curricular activity in schools and colleges, the Award can act as a value added component for enriching the personal, and social development of pupils.

The sense of self-confidence, the problem-solving skills, and the ability to work as part of a team, are valued by employers.

Participation in the Award is voluntary and, above all, it is fun!


There are nearly 4,000 Licensed Organisations across the UK where young people can do DofE. These include national youth organisations (Scouts, Guides, Sea Cadets, etc), state schools and colleges, independent and special schools, youth clubs, etc.

The Award has currently around 490,000 young people taking part in the UK, and over 6.7 million young people have taken part in the UK since it started in 1956.

The Award is reliant on over 40,000 volunteers to run the scheme, including youth workers, teachers, social workers, trainers, assessors and individuals from the community, all of whom wish to share their skills, enthusiasm and organising abilities to help young people reach their potential.

The Award Programme also operates in around 130 countries around the world, as part of the D of E International Award Foundation.

The Award is a four-Section programme with three levels:

  • Bronze (for those aged 14 and over)
  • Silver (for those aged 15 and over) and
  • Gold (for those aged 16 and over).

It would usually take a participant between 6-12 months to complete a Bronze Award; 12-18 months for a Silver Award and 18-24 months for a Gold Award. It may take less time for completion of the Silver or Gold Awards if the participant holds the preceding Award. All Awards must be completed by the participant's 25th birthday.

The Sections involve:

  • Volunteering (helping people in the community)
  • Physical recreation (sport, dance and fitness)
  • Skills (covering almost any hobby, skill or interest)
  • Expeditions (training for, planning, and completing a journey on foot, or horseback, by boat or cycle)
  • Residential (Gold Award only) (a purposeful enterprise, with people not previously known to the participant)

So, lets turn to some practicalities of the award, using my experiences of running the Award. I was not involved in the Award as a young person, but some of my friends were, interestingly, via apprenticeship schemes with a local company, who were very involved with youth activities such as Scouts.

I, however, was involved in youth work via Scouting, and eventually came to DofE, in the late 1980’s, via my son doing DofE at school. I had experience of expedition training from Scouting, and agreed to help as a parent instructor. At the time, two of the people organising the expeditions were members of Oldham Mountain Rescue team, so the training was both useful to the students, and also to me.

D of E had become very popular in the schools in the area, and when my wife agreed to be one of the first organisers for the Bronze Award at her secondary school, I agreed to help with some of the Expeditions. The school now has, annually, one of the largest number of awards in the North West. Later I became the local organiser for both my Scout Group, and later as Scout District Coordinator for the Award.

The young people need encouragement to complete the award, sometimes, surprisingly, through the skill section. They also need help with choices in the volunteering and physical recreation sections.

Developing a skill helps students get better at something they are really interested in and the ability to perhaps use the skill later in life. Some examples can be seen here.

Performing arts eg drama, singing. Science & Technology eg astronomy, IT, weather. Music eg playing a musical instrument. Natural World eg gardening, forestry. Also you can have first aid, a range of creative arts, care of animals, etc.

Physical, is sometimes the easiest to complete with a whole range of sports and activities, and some examples are given here. Fencing, dancing, gymnastics, football. There are also water sports, athletics, cricket, climbing, etc.

Volunteering can often be more difficult to organise, and find contacts to set up the service. Many help with leadership in Scouting or Guiding, helping a charity such as a Hospice shop, environmental work via a community organisation e.g. litter picking, or conservation projects.

But, of course the most physically demanding, best known and perhaps fun section is the Expedition. This is usually structured by adults, for safety reasons, and training is carefully organised. As you will have noticed, it does not have to be on foot, but can be on horseback, by canoe or cycle. For example, for years the girls at my son’s school did their Gold Expedition on the Caledonian canal in Scotland, and you can imagine how rough that can get for a canoe.

However, my experience is on foot. Training is via day walks in open country, followed by practice expeditions and then full expeditions. 2 days for Bronze, 3 for Silver and 4 for Gold. The latter in wild areas such as Snowdonia, the Lake District, North Yorkshire and Dartmoor.

The training walks are aimed at getting participants used to walking, and navigating, and the latter is initially quite difficult. We have had some great times on walks and expeditions in the Pennines around Saddleworth, which is NE of Manchester, the High Peak area of Derbyshire and the Lake District. There is careful monitoring of participants to ensure they do not run into difficulties, or get lost!! This initially is by accompanying them, but letting them navigate, and later by use of checkpoints.

One example of almost getting lost was around Latterbarrow, a hill near Lake Windermere. We were camping at Low Wray and were ready to leave, but because the leaders had one or two things to finish off, I famously said let them set off we will catch them up, they cannot get lost going towards Latterbarrow (it was so prominent). But they did, and we spent quite a while looking for them. They had made the classic mistake of going 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

The practice expeditions are aimed at giving the young people experience of camping, cooking, and carrying all the equipment over quite long distances, but also still checking their navigation skills. We did most of these in the Pennines, but the Lake District was a favourite area for the Gold Expeditions. For example, my daughter did hers starting at the top of Ullswater and travelling via a very circuitous route to Ambleside, a distance of around 50 miles.

The expedition included going over Helvellyn, and she particularly remembers getting up very early on that day to avoid the heat. I don’t know if any of you have been over Helvellyn, but, if so, probably not carrying a pack with personal and camping equipment, as well as food, etc for 4 days.

I acted as supervisor for my own son’s Gold Award expedition, but the success is assessed by an independent examiner. The route has to be agreed before the expedition, so that the assessor can ensure it is suitable, and monitor progress. I was not allowed to interfere only there in case of emergency. They were in mid Wales, starting around Towyn, passing over Cader Idris, and finishing north of Dolgellau. The most memorable part is seeing them appear on the ridge of Cader Idris, in a thunderstorm. A decision had to be taken to get off the ridge, to avoid any lightning strikes. The quick way down was the very steep Fox’s Path. Not ideal with full pack, but they got down safely. There they met the assessor and set up camp by the side of Llyn Cau. This was followed by thick mist descending, and then daylight fading, and I had to leave them to descend in darkness to my campsite on the valley floor. I am not sure whether I was more concerned for myself or them.

Of course, the Expedition has to have a purpose, other then just completing the journey, and this can be, for example, recording wildlife, the role of people involved, creating a photo guide, etc.

The final part of the Gold award is the Residential section. The participant has to undertake a shared activity, or course, with people they do not know, in a residential setting away from home, and in an unfamiliar environment, lasting for 5 days with a minimum of 4 nights. Examples of this are National Trust working holidays, service crew at summer camps, conservation projects, etc. For Rotary, an example is that participation in RYLA can be used for this.

D of E is great for the participants, but also for the volunteers, and it has given me some enjoyment in watching the young people develop throughout the award. I have been particularly interested in the D of E publicity around the death of Prince Philip, and this has brought back many memories of the award, and the activities and people involved. In fact, the D of E has asked for help in creating a historic collection of memories, in tribute to Prince Philip, and some of these are on the D of E website.

But I also remember being present at two D of E Gold award presentations, at St James’s Palace, with my son and daughter. Each year a number of presentations occur, at Buckingham Palace, Holyrood House and St James’s Palace, and, until recently, the Duke of Edinburgh has been present at virtually all. The award holders are formed into groups, with a local representative, or celebrity, and Prince Philip visits each group. The interest he showed in the young people, and how he engaged with them, was great to see. Long may the award continue.

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