16-year-old Daisy is captivated by the scenery on one particularly steep incline. “It’s very calming,” she says, barely pausing to catch her breath. “When we get back to London, it will be really loud but here it feels like I’m nowhere – no specific place. It’s a very surreal experience.”


Welcome to the front line of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition.

Anyone who has spent any time in rural Britain will have seen a Duke of Edinburgh group: a little knot of teenagers hiking along a footpath, backs bowed beneath bulging rucksacks or poring studiously over a map and compass. However, for most of us, our understanding of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme (or ‘D of E’ as it’s universally known), is limited to some vague notion that it “involves a lot of walking about”. So it was with my curiosity piqued that I joined 24 sixth-formers at the pier in Eastbourne early one Saturday morning in July. All pupils at Bishop Challoner School in east London, they had split into four teams of six to take part in a three-day trek through a ravishing corner of East Sussex in pursuit of their Silver Award.

On this near perfect summer’s day they’d be walking 20km, tackling the rollercoaster that is the Seven Sisters cliffs on their way to a campsite at the village of Alfriston. They would have to cover the distance inside seven hours, while keeping to the planned route and carrying all their equipment on their backs. Timed checkpoints would ensure that no team was slacking or had skipped off to take a bus.

The first groups are marshalled and seen off by former infantryman Andy White, the Duke of Edinburgh leader for Tower Hamlets, the school’s inner-city borough. He tells me that this exercise is about the students “seeing themselves in a different environment to the city life they’ve been used to. Their personalities will change, their characters will change and it will make them stronger people.”

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Plan of action

This will be music to the ears of the Duke of Edinburgh himself, who co-founded the scheme with Kurt Hahn (see box]. The Duke was keen
for young men and women to acquire self-confidence and a sense of purpose that would both support them into adulthood and help them become well-rounded citizens.

Following discussions with the Minister of Education in 1955, the Duke consulted a number of national voluntary youth organisations.
A year later a pilot scheme for boys was overseen by the D of E’s first director, Lord John Hunt, who had led the first successful Everest expedition. It proved such a triumph that two years later, a programme for girls was launched and similar pilots began overseas.

The all-girl group with whom I set out along the prom are in high spirits and clearly up for today’s challenge.
As we begin the climb up to Beachy Head, they share their reasons for signing up. A chance to develop skills is clearly a motivation; some, with an eye on the future, are enthusiastic about the glister it will give to their CV; while others are attracted by the experience for its own sake. “Oh, and slimming down and toning up,” adds chief map-reader Leah.

Natural enjoyment

For nearly all of them, being in a rural environment is an important part of the experience. There is much scratching of heads while they try to remember the last time they had made a non-D of E trip to the countryside. Andy ruefully informed me that on a practice exercise one youngster had taken a sheep to be a llama, while Brett Barnsdale, the school’s D of E coordinator, expressed his hope that being away from Tower Hamlets might allow the group “a deeper appreciation of the beauty and value of the British countryside”.

That was certainly true for Emily, a bright young woman aiming to do an engineering degree, who was thrilled to spot a pair of deer during an expedition. Others, such as Kobe, relished the break from city life: “There’s practically no signal,” she joyfully proclaimed, gazing out over an azure sea sparkling in the sunshine. “You can’t go on Facebook – there’s none of that here.”

When relating their favourite D of E experiences, many mention the simple pleasure of bonding with their peers while chatting face-to-face around a campfire at night. Aaron, a 17-year-old who praised the D of E because it was helping him overcome his shyness, even told me that the experience had made him consider living in the countryside one day.

But, as I was to learn, this expedition formed only one part of the Silver Award. For some, the trek was the culmination of their efforts, while others were still working on the award’s other three components – Volunteering, Physical and Skills. Nichola had edited two editions of the school magazine, turning a profit of around £1,000, which was donated to charity. Lemuel was teaching basketball skills to younger children, and Debbie was studying for a qualification in forensic psychology. Vicky, meanwhile, was doing archery and rollerblading, though not, she reassured me, at the same time.

The awards are no pushovers either: the school’s experience is that about a half to two-thirds who enroll in the scheme actually go on to achieve them. The navigation work essential to the Expedition segment certainly provided a stiff test for these youngsters more at home with the map of the London Underground than anything produced by the Ordnance Survey. This was borne out when I asked them what their worst experience on the D of E had been. Almost without exception, the replies began, “When we got lost in…”

Growing health

Anyone doubting the relevance of the scheme in the 21st century need only look at the impressive growth it has seen since its inception. In its first 10 years, just over 150,000 awards were achieved in the UK, while the last 10 years have seen well over 800,000 presented, bringing the grand total to more than 2.5 million. In 2015/16, over 300,000 young people have been taking part in the UK, drawn from both urban and rural areas, of which over 33,000 are disadvantaged in some way. The D of E is a global phenomenon run in 140 other countries, with many millions of youngsters participating.

I waved my goodbyes as the various groups pounded on towards Friston Forest on their way to the campsite. Not only had they defied the media stereotypes of inner-city teenagers, I found myself infected by their optimism, enthusiasm and general lust for life – what better tribute could there be to the Duke of Edinburgh Award as it turns 60-years-young?

Visit the Duke of Edinburgh Award website at dofe.org


Image: Sarah Medway


Dixe Wills is the author of a shelf-wearying host of books about Britain including The Z-Z of Great Britain, Tiny Islands and Tiny Churches.