“I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion”

Kurt Hahn

One of the most striking parts of the huge media coverage for Prince Philip over the past few days has been his extraordinary achievement with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. It has been reported that over five million young people have benefited from this programme providing hope, life skills and opportunity in abundance.

But the story starts much earlier than the mid-1950s when the Awards scheme began.

Prince Philip’s early life was not untypical of children now taken into care, growing up in circumstances which shattered conventional family life. However, his teenage years gave him a firm platform demonstrating how, given the right opportunities, all young people can break free of the challenges that beset them in early life and achieve their potential.

So in this commentary we take a closer look at what brought this opportunity and a sense of purpose to the young Prince Philip, and how we can follow his example in the years ahead.

Prince Philip’s transformation into adult life can be traced directly back to his years at Gordonstoun, which was the foundation for his rare combination of remarkable achievements alongside a wholly unassuming character. He was one of the first students at this Scottish school, which all his sons have also attended: and that may indicate the respect which he had for its character-building approach.

Gordonstoun’s ‘founding father’ was Kurt Hahn (1886-1974), who was born in Berlin to Jewish parents. Hahn’s educational principles were forged from the chaos of the First World War; he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and established Gordonstoun with Sir Lawrence Holt, on similar principles to those which he had previously established at Salem, the school he founded in Germany in 1920.

These principles are based on what he perceived as the six ‘declines of modern youth’: of fitness, initiative and enterprise, memory and imagination, skill and care, self-discipline and compassion. From these, he established ten ‘expeditionary learning principles’; later, he recognised the close alignment of these with Christian teaching, and he became a communicant member of the Church of England in 1945:

The primacy of self-discovery

Collaboration and competition

The having of wonderful ideas

Diversity and inclusion

The responsibility for learning

The natural world

Empathy and caring

Solitude and reflection

Success and failure

Service and compassion


It is well worth exploring these further in Kurt Hahn’s Wikipedia entry and the references therein.

After a tumultuous start to life, in which his father went off to live with a mistress in Monaco and his mother was sectioned into a mental home, the young Prince Philip became just the tenth student to go to Gordonstoun. And it is clear from his adult life that he wholly embraced these principles, which also inspired his establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme - thereby enabling millions of young people to benefit from them as well.

It is an extraordinary example of how great things are achieved from small beginnings.

It also shows a deep belief in the potential of every young person, whatever their background.

This latter recognition of the universality of human potential is what Antoine de Ste Exupery wrote of in the epilogue of his very perceptive book  ‘Terre des Hommes’ (‘Wind, Sand and Stars’). It should be at the heart of all those determined to achieve inter-generational rebalancing.

The Share Foundation’s focus is on providing disadvantaged young people with some resources and life skills to achieve their potential in adult life, and there are some aspects of its Stepladder programme for young people in care which echo Hahn’s character-building principles.

But resources and life skills are also important, and good progress is being made to ensure that schemes such as the Child Trust Fund will be as effective as possible. During May, The Share Foundation will start a series of virtual events for 16-18 year-olds designed to help young people find their accounts and develop money awareness skills; it's looking for more CTF Ambassadors who can help these events to reach as many young people as possible over the coming eight years. Can you help?

Prince Philip has set a remarkable example to us all. Notwithstanding his royal authority, he has shown us how to walk alongside people from all walks of life, not talking down to them. And he has demonstrated in practice, and in huge numbers, how the principles established by Kurt Hahn in the 1930s can bring about a change in attitudes in young people, showing how they also can achieve their potential.

As a result, over five million young people have been helped to look forward with confidence.

What a legacy!

Gavin Oldham OBE

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