The Duke of Edinburgh award in the age of global education
The recent passing of the Duke of Edinburgh has compelled us to reflect upon the life and achievements of a remarkable man, and for those of us within education, that includes his tremendous contribution to the education sector through the Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award.
What is the DofE award?
The DofE award was officially created in 1956 by his Royal Highness with the intention of bridging the gap between leaving formal education at the age of 15 and entering the national service at the age of 18. The duke wanted young men — the program was expanded to include women a year after piloting — to use this valuable time to discover themselves and their interests, develop their confidence, a sense of identity, and the resilience needed to navigate adulthood successfully.
The award requires young people to step outside of their comfort zones and commit to a year of activity within four categories: volunteering, physical, skills, and expedition. Remarkably, in almost 20 years, 1 million young people had started the DofE program. This is truly a testament to the duke’s vision and insight into the shortage of meaningful, agentic, and human-centric education.
Why was the DofE award so poignant?
At its heart, the DofE award was about citizenship. The DofE award was created in the post-war era where it was recognized as national importance that the need for young people in post-conflict zones should develop a sense of purpose and become well-rounded citizens, much like in modern education-in-emergencies scenarios. Modern youth-based community-service initiatives can thus, in part, be attributed to the values directed by the DofE award. By awarding those who volunteered in communities, the award’s impact transcended the locale and tied it to a macro humane vision of education’s power and purpose.
The Duke of Edinburgh was an avid explorer and relished in his expeditions, and undoubtedly wanted young urban children to experience the same sense of empowerment and adventure that he enjoyed. This unknowingly contributed to the award’s pedagogical significance because it disrupted conventional understandings of what constituted education. By challenging young folk to set their own goals, explore, and uncover their own interests, it pedagogically positioned students as agents of their own destinies — challenging traditional education pedagogy that is often guilty of positioning young people as passive receptacles and subordinate to authority. By prizing human experience and human skills, the DofE award allowed young people to achieve in ways that weren’t necessarily recognized as skills or achievements by formal education.
The DofE award in relation to contemporary and global education
While pausing to reflect on the historic poignance of the DofE award, we are also compelled to consider the underside of the award’s contemporary significance. In recent years, the DofE award’s richness has become somewhat desaturated by its administrative significance. As the DofE award is a valuable item on a college application or CV, we are concerned that the award has come to signify employability to students rather than pursued for its intrinsic rootedness in the interpersonal, citizenship, purpose, and community.
There is also danger in collecting certificates to fulfill the shortcoming of formal education in deciding the ‘value’ of students who enter tertiary institutions. While the cost of partaking in the certificates may be affordable, we must consider how well-resourced schools, or in cases where parents drive children’s decision-making, compel and support a student’s pursuit of achieving a Gold certificate. Distinguishing levels of awards and making the Gold a significant challenge does help to ensure that only those who really want to achieve it embark on it, however, it currently favors those who can draw from schooling or parental support to fulfill this. When this is considered in relation to the value of the DofE for college admissions, we bear witness to how class inequalities continue to be spoken through educational offerings.
The increasingly globalized nature of our world and advancements in travel and connection to opportunity means that many young students appear allured by the exotic, while the appeal of local expeditions have lost their excitement. And yet, the original aims of the Duke of Edinburgh award – to develop the skills of citizenship and the desire to serve one’s community – remain ever relevant, indeed perhaps more relevant than ever at this point. At World Leading Schools Association (WLSA), we believe that a meaningful sense of global purpose and an ability to see the world through the eyes of others can only be achieved if there is a strong sense of local identity to begin with.
In other words, global education’s emphasis should be on a ‘global mindset’, a collective striving for a shared vision (such as the UNSDGs), rather than on expedition into global territories. Perhaps perceiving the Gold Award as the pinnacle of achievement prevents us from recognizing the work that still needs to be done in nurturing globally-minded citizenship and leaders, so we can become a more interdependent, sustainable and prosperous world.
The DofE award and WLSA
In pausing to reflect on the significance of the award, we recognized some of its values in WLSA’s own vision and mission for education. WLSA believes in in-country experiences to nurture a sense of wonder as well as to provide students with instant feedback on the development of their human skills and ability to thrive in a new cultural context.
WLSA recognized the challenge traditional school systems face in developing cross-cultural understanding and the importance of this in developing effective global citizens rooted in a purpose greater than themselves. The WLSA experience is thus designed to provide the skillset and knowledge that students need to support their propensity towards action. WLSA Associates all offer a truly holistic education including online learning; they emphasize the development of human skills, personal identity, and student agency, they are continually active in serving their local communities and operate with global mindsets.
As WLSA enters our second decade, we are committed to developing cross-cultural understanding through education with programs such as internships in China and cross-cultural leadership, and it is worth us pausing to recognize the impact that the Duke of Edinburgh has had in enabling us to build on some solid foundations in education. We are all responsible for nurturing our children towards meaningful, respectful, and collaborative citizenship, to ensure the experiences we give them develop the right values and human skills to operate with a purpose greater than themselves. As we offer our respects to the life of the duke, we remain grateful for his commitment to service and long-lasting impact on education and will continue to honor his vision through our work at WLSA.