Offering the Duke of Edinburgh’s

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
New experiences: Duke of Edinburgh’s Award pupils from South Bromsgrove High, where the award has become a core part of students’ progression through the school (Photos: South Bromsgrove High School)

Many schools embrace the opportunities offered by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – not least at South Bromsgrove High School, which is the largest school-based DofE centre in the country. Emma Lee-Potter takes a look

During the course of the last 60 years the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award has enabled millions of young people around the world to gain new skills, push themselves physically, help others and explore new places.

The award, created by Prince Philip in 1956, celebrates its diamond anniversary this year and the charity is encouraging people of all ages to take the DofE Diamond Challenge – in other words, to step outside their comfort zones and set themselves an adventure or challenge.

At South Bromsgrove High School, a 13 to 18 school in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a group of staff have organised a four-day Diamond Challenge expedition through the wilds of Snowdonia, while headteacher Paul Topping has set himself the task of cycling 10,000 kilometres, running 1,000 kilometres and swimming 100 kilometres by December 31, raising money for DofE in the process and “still carrying out my headteacher’s duties”.

DofE is big at South Bromsgrove, which prides itself on being the largest DofE school-based centre in the country.
When lessons finish at 3:20pm on Monday afternoons more than a third of the 1,350 pupils stay on for their weekly DofE session. The school has offered DofE for more than 25 years and with the support of up to 70 staff 500 students volunteer to do the award each year. Around 250 pupils do their bronze award (14-year-olds and up), 150 their silver award (15-year-olds and up), and 100 their gold award (16-year-olds and up).

Recent success stories include student Abel McLinden, who is currently doing a gap year before studying geography at university. He completed his bronze, silver and gold awards at the school last year, a feat that involved building and maintaining his own racing bikes, taking part in triathlons, and trekking across remote parts of the Himalayas.

Mr Topping, who leads a bronze award group at the school each year, is a passionate supporter of DofE, firmly believing that it helps to build young people’s character, confidence, leadership and resilience. His view is borne out by DofE research showing that 93 per cent of participants feel that DofE helped them to work as part of a team, while 84 per cent feel that doing DofE enabled them to become more responsible.

Mr Topping has been head at South Bromsgrove since 2010 and has seen the award go from strength to strength during that time.

He told SecEd: “DofE is fabulous for young people. It develops a range of skills that they really need as they move into adulthood. Some of these skill-sets are accessible through classroom practice but some aren’t – particularly things like teamwork, empathy and resilience, all of which are crucial for young people in the modern world and very achievable through DofE.

“At school we spend a lot of time encouraging characteristics like respect and tolerance and young people gain these through the award as well.

“Students always say that they have had to undertake tasks and get involved in activities that they wouldn’t have considered if they hadn’t done the award. I know character education is a feature of the Department for Education’s policy now but DofE has been doing this for a long time and it’s exemplified in the award.

“The other aspect is that because we have so many staff involved it builds a quality of relationships between the staff and the students that it is hard to replicate in any other kind of way. There is a real forging of bonds between adults and young people in a way that is very progressive. It helps a lot with staff cohesion as well.

“When we interview candidates for posts here we always laughingly say that there will be a question about whether they can work a Trangia camping stove.”

The DofE Award comprises five sections – volunteering, physical, skills, expedition and, for gold DofE participants only, residential.

Volunteering gives students the chance to make a difference to people’s lives and use their skills and experience to help their local community.

The physical section involves taking part in a pursuit that requires a sustained level of energy and physical activity (anything from athletics to Flamenco dancing).

The skills section challenges youngsters to improve a skill they already have or to learn a new one, while the expedition element, traditionally associated with rucksacks and camping, ranges from horse-riding in the Brecon Beacons to cycling in the Scottish Highlands to trekking across Dartmoor.

Mr Topping is continually impressed by the achievements of the DofE groups at his school.
He continued: “I work with a group of seven to 14 boys and girls doing the bronze award and they are thrilled to bits when they have completed it.

“They never quite realise what they are letting themselves in for when they sign up, but by the end of it they are very proud to have achieved what they have achieved. They say things like ‘I really understand what teamwork is now’ and ‘I understand why we always walk at the pace of the slowest person’.”

The head is also struck by the commitment shown by the students who opt to do the award: “This is a year-round award and students have to dedicate a lot of time to it,” said Mr Topping.

“Most of that time will involve them being active in one way or another and very little of it will involve a screen or mobile phone. When we are doing the expedition work we have a rule that mobile phones are there for emergency use only.

“We absolutely require students to use an old-fashioned paper Ordnance Survey map as one of the skill-sets. It’s a bit of an antidote to the modern phenomenon of screens and living life through a virtual reality rather than actual reality.”

The school holds a DofE awards ceremony just before Christmas each year to celebrate the students’ successes. Last year the speaker was Dave Heeley, the first blind person in the world to complete seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, while the year before it was intrepid mountaineer Kent Cool, who has conquered Everest 11 times.

“It’s one of the biggest events we have and the place is always packed out,” said Mr Topping.

“DofE is extremely rewarding for young people and adults alike – and in an education world where it is sometimes hard to find reward and where the challenges seem to increase each year it is a real outlet for passion.”

The South Bromsgrove staff are always gratified to find that having achieved their bronze award many youngsters go on to take their silver and gold too.

Those who achieve the gold award are invited to St James’s Palace in London, the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, or Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland to receive their awards in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh or the Earl of Wessex.

“We find that within two or three weeks the agonies of the blisters fade into the background and the students have this incandescent glow of achievement,” said Mr Topping.

“Before you know it they’re signing up for silver and then for gold. And to find themselves receiving their gold awards from the Duke of Edinburgh or the Earl of Wessex is something the students never forget.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

Top tips: Offering the DofE at your school

Paul Topping’s advice includes the following:

  • "Assemble a small group of committed staff to launch DofE at your school. The DofE team does a lot of the training and organises a variety of opportunities to encourage new schools and centres to become involved. South Bromsgrove High School, a national Teaching School, sometimes runs seminars on the impact that DofE has on character education, engaging staff and students in the award and practical considerations like running camps, health and safety, training and essential equipment. To find out more, go to www.sbhteachingschool.org.uk"
  • Start small. Concentrate on the bronze award first and put the skills, physical and volunteering sections in place, then get help and advice in planning the expedition section.
  • "Don’t be daunted. DofE tends to have a snowball effect in schools and students who successfully take part will happily act as advocates and ambassadors for the award the following year.
  • "DofE is divided into regions, so wherever you are, the region will direct you to a school that’s relatively local to you. Go and see how they operate the award – and if all else fails, come and see us at South Bromsgrove. We are very happy to talk about the practicalities of setting up DofE and some of the dos and don’ts."
  • For more information, visit www.dofe.org


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