Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards
Prince Edward, set to take over the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards, tells
Louise Johncox they’re not just for middle-class kids
5 March 2006 The Sunday Times
I have been granted a “rare interview” with Edward, who wants to talk about the 50th anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which has become his pet project.
When we are introduced, the earl is friendly and even offers to pour me a cup of tea. His people appear a bit nervous about our encounter. But when we start to talk he laughs that there are three tape recorders on the table (I brought two and the royal press officer produced one).
This June, Prince Philip will be 85. I ask whether there are any plans for Edward to take over the award from his father. “I think that there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over me, that it’s almost inevitable,” he says.
“But that is for the award to decide, if that’s what they want. While it’s the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and he’s the Duke of Edinburgh, it’s very much his, so he’ll continue as the patron and founder and do all the gold award presentations, which, amazingly, he’s done every one of in Britain since the award started in 1956.”
Since then some 6m people aged between 14 and 25 have participated in the programme, which demands achievement in several areas, including sport, voluntary service and expeditions. More than 2m awards have been gained, and there are currently more than 600,000 young people participating worldwide. Surprising then, that when the duke launched the award he had his share of critics. “When it first started, people said that my father was trying to start another Hitler Youth,” says Edward.
Today, detractors think it too middle class, which he believes is “quite frankly insulting for 50% of the people doing the award programme. It’s much more diverse than that. Yes, we are in 85% of independent schools, but we are in 68% of state schools and 12% of special needs schools.
“That is a complete revelation — the fact that we are in special needs schools. Most people think, ‘How can handicapped people do the award?’ They do it on a totally equal basis to the able bodied”.
The earl believes the award is “almost more relevant today” than in 1956, given the current emphasis on academic achievement in schools. “There has always been a struggle to try to make the educationalists understand that there is a role for both — and that non-formal education can be just as effective as academic education.”
But actually providing the opportunities can be a headache. Like so many youth organisations, the award faces problems with red tape. “You have this ridiculous situation where, in a nanny state, on the one hand they are saying you’ve got to have all this child protection, on the other hand they are saying we need more volunteers. You’re going, ‘But you’re sending out the wrong messages’.
“And now they are talking about curtailing the credits for teachers working outside the curriculum and you go, ‘What are you hoping to achieve by that? You’re going to cut off all the activities that, frankly, young people are interested in doing’.”
Kurt Hahn, Prince Philip’s old headmaster at Gordonstoun, conceived the idea. “Hahn understood that there weren’t that many young people motivated by academic work. Most are motivated by something else. What is that something else?
He reckoned it was probably in one of four areas — adventure, a sport, a hobby or it might be a service.”
All participants can progress from bronze to silver through to the coveted gold award. “I think it has huge importance, and there are lots of young people who are at risk of becoming disengaged from the education process and the award is exactly what is required to re-engage and motivate them to come to school.”
Surprisingly, Edward first became aware of the award at his school, Gordonstoun, rather than through his father. “I was doing expeditions which involved climbing up and down mountains. I said, ‘Is there any chance I can do an expedition when you walk around the mountains and you camp in a different place every night?’ ‘Oh right (they said), you better go off and do the Duke of Edinburgh Award then,’ which was the first I had ever heard of it.”
His biggest challenge, he admits, was completing the sport element, which he eventually did at university, where he took up real (or royal) tennis — a forerunner of lawn tennis. “That gave the award another problem, because there was nothing in the handbook about real or royal tennis,” he laughs.
Edward completed his gold in the year the award celebrated its 30th anniversary. Today he is chairman of the international council (the award exists in 115 countries) and is a trustee on the board in the UK. Since becoming a full-time royal in 2002 alongside his wife Sophie, he has become more and more involved. Insiders say he spends 70% of his time working for the award.
“It does take up a large share of my time,” he admits. In the future he would like to see his daughter Louise, 2, take part in the award. “I’d absolutely like Louise to do the award, but she’s got a few years before she can go about it yet. If she felt able to do it and was interested in this sort of thing that would be fine.”
He is now helping to raise £5m this year for the 50th Anniversary Jubilee Fund, which aims to secure the future of the award, with another £5m to be raised over the next five years. Several big events are coming up. An award garden party at Buckingham Palace on July 13 will be attended by icons from the past 50 years, including David Beckham (World Cup permitting), Kelly Holmes, Bobby Charlton and Buzz Aldrin.
Two “icons dinners”, both for 300 people (with an icon sitting at each table), will take place at St James’s Palace in July. Later that month the first ever award festival — a pop concert with an adventure village — will be held at Windsor Great Park.
One area of the award Edward is particularly keen to highlight is voluntary service. “I reckon that award participants in Britain alone will give 12m hours of service this year. If you equate that to the minimum wage, £4.50 an hour, say, that’s over £60m a year that young people are giving back to their communities.”
Participants work in traditional areas such as old people’s homes and travel abroad on community projects. “It can also be a service to the environment. One of the things we are going to do this year is to plant 500 trees around the country.”
The award has also proved to be successful as part of rehabilitation programmes for young offenders. “Each step of the way someone is going ‘well done’ and some of these guys have never had a pat on the back in their lives,” says Edward.
He admits, though, that it has been challenging introducing the award into some areas such as the probation service. “They just think, ‘How on earth can the award be in any way relevant to young people?’ After a few months they are just amazed by how it works. Once you get past the name, it’s what young people want to do. All the other organisations are telling them what they have to do, which is quite different.”
My time is up: I’ve had nearly an hour, which was double what I expected. Whatever people say about Edward, he is clearly passionate about the award. “It’s the combination of seeing what it does to young people and meeting them, that’s what really makes it worthwhile, and that’s not just in Britain, that’s all over the world.”