How The Duke of Edinburgh Award inspired generations of explorers

The death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, has rekindled memories among thousands of people of their first taste of adventure on a DofE Award expedition.

Published 14 Apr 2021, 07:55 BST
Teenagers tackling the Duke of Edinburgh's Award expedition in the Brecon Beacons, Wales.

Teenagers tackling the Duke of Edinburgh's Award expedition in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. 

National Geographic explorers and adventurers have joined a chorus of thousands of people worldwide in remembering the significance of the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Award scheme for kickstarting their passion for adventure and exploration.

The passing of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, at the age of 99, has triggered memories among many adults of their first expeditions as school children, as they undertook a DofE Bronze, Silver or Gold award. Often cold, frequently blistered and lost, DofE students nonetheless remember the excitement of backpacking with friends as a bonding and inspiring experience.

National Geographic Explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison did the DofE Bronze award at school, before swiftly advancing to more ambitious trips, and credits the scheme’s central role in his school’s outdoor pursuits club.

“I remember some challenging conditions learning to canoe along the Thames, and I have fond memories of getting blisters on my hands, being hungry, and falling out of boats. I remember it being extremely [important for] bonding with the friends I was with at the time,” he says.

“I went on to become a geography teacher for a while and I could strongly see how my pupils [doing the DofE awards] were being given the gift that I had been given in building their confidence, strength and resilience, and really shaping what they were going to do with their lives. When you scale up the number of rewarding memories and confidence building moments, and the sheer number of people who have been bound by this opportunity, it’s truly phenomenal.”

Chief Scout and adventurer Bear Grylls told BBC Radio 4 that the Duke of Edinburgh had been, “a total inspiration to me because he was all about encouraging other people, and empowering young people to get out there and live their lives with eyes wide open and full of anticipation and excitement and service.”

The long-lasting legacy of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards will see “millions of young people in hundreds of countries around the world who have grown up with the values of exploration, endeavour, friendship and adventure,” said Grylls.

History of a legacy

The idea for the DofE Award first appeared in 1954, when HRH The Duke of Edinburgh was encouraged by Kurt Hahn, his former headmaster at Gordonstoun, a rugged, outdoorsy school close to Inverness in the north east of Scotland, to develop a national programme that would support young people’s development. The objective was to find a way to reproduce the school’s philosophy of community service, teamwork and responsibility – bridging the three-year gap between students leaving school at 15 and starting then compulsory national service at 18.

Seventeen-year-old Martin Davies, troop leader of the 25th Warrington Group scouts, strides out of Windsor Castle past a guard after becoming the first member of the Scout movement to gain the Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award.

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

A pilot programme started in February 1956 – led by Sir John Hunt, leader of the first ascent of Everest expedition – had four distinct sections: rescue and public service, expeditions, pursuits and projects, and fitness. This DNA continues to this day.

“It is what I like to call a do-it-yourself growing up kit,” said the Duke.

Within a year, 7,000 boys had started a DofE programme and 1,000 awards had been achieved. The following year the scheme added a programme for girls as well as small-scale overseas pilot projects, and its popularity soared.

By 1975 the one millionth young person had already started a DofE programme, a figure which today exceeds 6.7million in the UK alone, of whom 3.1 million have achieved at least one award. Globally, more than 130 countries now offer the DofE programme to their young people, built on the four key pillars of volunteering, physical activity, learning new skills and the ever-popular expedition, whether on foot, by bicycle, boat, canoe or kayak, on horseback, or in a wheelchair.

'Life-changing'

Five times Paralympic champion and 12 times World Champion wheelchair racer Hannah Cockcroft did the DofE Bronze award when she was 14. She played no sport at the time, but was obliged by the scheme to take one up to meet the ‘physical skill’ criterion.

The Duke of Edinburgh with 18-year-old David Salisbury, a Liverpool Police Cadet - one of the recipients of the Gold award, presented in the garden of Buckingham Palace in 1962.

“You could probably credit the Duke of Edinburgh for my success in the Paralympics because without that I probably wouldn’t have taken up any of the sports that I did,” she told Channel 4 News. “At the time I hated my wheelchair, I hated anything that made me look different. And I couldn’t get round the hike on my feet. I couldn’t rely on other people to get me there. So I had to learn new skills, I had to use my wheelchair and become comfortable with it, and that was just life-changing for me.”

The Gold award remains the pinnacle of success, a commitment that requires more than 50 hours each of volunteering, physical exercise and skill development, capped by a four-day camping expedition in one of the UK’s more remote locations. It’s so demanding that participants now have until their 25th birthday to complete the programme.

A series of commemorative stamps in 1981 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the scheme evoked the skillset taught by the DofE award – including first aid (left) and expedition craft (right.) 

Photograph by Stan Pritchard / Alamy

Professor Mary Gagen, a geographer at the University of Swansea and former National Geographic Society grantee, regrets that her inner-city school in Manchester didn’t do DoE.

“We knew what it was though and we all were desperately jealous of the schools who did do it. To be honest that has stayed with me and been a big part of the outreach we do to provide kids with similar awards and recognitions, even if they come from tricky inner city schools,” she says.

The scheme has taken steps to address its accessibility and diversity, reporting that 72,577 disadvantaged young people embarked on one of its three awards between April 2019 and March 2020, delivered through schools, youth groups, businesses, voluntary organisations, fostering agencies, young offender institutions and hospitals.

Ruth Marvel, chief executive of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, said that over the past 65 years the scheme has helped “young people to explore who they are, invest in themselves and develop the skills and experience they need to successfully navigate adult life. Any young person can do their DofE – regardless of ability, gender, ethnicity, background or geography. Achieving an Award isn’t a competition and it’s not about being first. It’s all about expanding your horizons, setting personal challenges and pushing yourself to achieve them.”

Meths stoves, map reading, Kendal mint cake, heavy rucksacks – all are touchstones of the classic Duke of Edinburgh's award camping experience. The memories – if not always pleasant – have given a generation of explorers sensory nostalgia. 

Photograph by Melanie Eldred Photography / Alamy

Seeds of exploration

The explorer Levison Wood said his own experience of doing a DofE Award, “gave me an insight into life beyond my own village as a teenager. It inspired me to travel, taught me the beauty of the outdoors, saved me from getting into serious trouble and got me into the British Army as an Officer. None of that possible without [Prince Philip]. I can thank the Award scheme for providing me with the confidence, skills and motivation to embark on the life of my choosing. I can say honestly that I would not have achieved any of the things I have done without that lift in life early on.”

Silver award holder Steve Backshall, an adventurer and TV presenter, said “Your DofE shows you have fortitude and the ability to stick to a task, which is recognised by universities and employers alike.”

Leading businesses, including British Gas, Asda and Google have all said that they acknowledge a DofE award during their recruitment processes as a recognisable mark of a young person’s transferrable soft skills. 


The Bishop of Norwich, Graham Usher, credits the Award scheme with giving him, “many skills for life for which I will always be grateful.”

Prince Philip continued to present the award to successful youngsters into late life, until he retired from public duties in the summer of 2017; here he is shown at the gold award presentations at Hillsborough Castle in County Down., Ireland in May that year.

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Prince Philip handed over the chairmanship of the DofE Trustees in 2001, but remained as patron, and attended more than 500 Gold award presentations himself.

The current chair of Trustees is Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who said at her appointment, “I’m passionate about everything the DofE stands for. Getting young people active, giving them goals and purpose and enabling them to develop their confidence and resilience is hugely important. Through their DofE young people do all of this and more.”

Royal succession

The future royal face of the Awards is likely to be Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, who completed his own Gold Award in 1986 and is now chairman of the trustees of The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Foundation.

“The current environment is very challenging for young people, so it’s important they try to make themselves more attractive to employers,” he said. “The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is highly valued by business because they know it helps to develop more rounded individuals.”

As a tribute to HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is now asking for anyone who has been involved in the scheme over the past 65 years to share their experiences on their website.

One of the first submissions was by Holly Miller. “From Bronze, Silver and Gold my abilities were stretched each and every time. The Gold challenge was by far the most challenging yet rewarding as I was pushed to do things I never thought I was capable of doing. Even today, four years after I completed my expedition for the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, it remains my proudest moment,” she wrote. 

“It's when you are put in a situation of nature, without technology to guide you, you realise your full potential to explore, delve into nature and appreciate everything before you... Thank you to the Duke of Edinburgh for making these memories possible, challenging us as young individuals which helped to guide us into adulthood.”

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