Why students should participate in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award?
As the Spring Term begins and our Year 9 students get ready to embark on their Bronze DofE training, Westonbirt teacher Cat Crowley shares her experience of the programme as both a student and a member of staff, and reflects on the lifelong skills students can learn from taking part.
The sound of six teenage girls chanting the lyrics to pop songs bounces around the Pyrenees in southern France. A shout interrupts, picking up the remnants of an earlier abandoned conversation:
“Lamb! Roast lamb and mint sauce!”
“No, it has to be jelly with lamb.”
“I don’t like roasts, I am looking forward to mum’s chilli con carne.”
“Oh, not rice! I’ve eaten enough of that this week to last a lifetime!”
It’s August in the early 2000s and it has been pouring with rain for the last three days. We are tired, craving food that is not cooked on a Tranga and we are so wet that we are fairly certain that we have developed trench foot. For the moment though, we are jubilant because we’ve just passed the boys group that set off this morning at pace, aiming not to stop for any breaks and who have now clearly run out of steam.
This is my abiding memory of my Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition. A mix of wet feet, hunger, singing, friendship and camaraderie. The sun came out on the last morning, taking us all by surprise and leaving us all sunburnt. We didn’t have trench foot, but my friend did end up with blisters so bad that she had to wear awful clogs for nearly the whole of the autumn term of our final school year.
Every year, approximately 300,000 young people across 130 countries take part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award; about half of them go on to complete it. All of our Year 9’s at Westonbirt start the Bronze DofE Award in the Autumn term and roughly 90% of the year go on to completion. Students then get the option to advance to Silver and after that Gold, each level introducing new challenges. The expedition is what DofE is known for and, if you have ever spent enough time in places like the Breacon Beacons, the Mendips, the Pennines, Yorkshire Moors, or the Lammermuir Hills in the Scottish borders, you will no doubt have seen group after group of bedraggled teens passing through, sporting heavy and often lopsided bags. However, there are other challenges to pass before you gain your reward: you must spend some time volunteering; you must be able to prove that you take part in a sport or physical activity of some kind on a regular basis; and you must choose a skill to work on and be able to prove that you have increased your capability over a period of time. At Gold level, you are also expected to complete a residential course.
In the autumn term, fifteen eager candidates from Westonbirt set out on their Gold Award expedition. They had chosen not to walk but instead to canoe along the River Wye, soaking up the stunning scenery and snaking in and out of Wales as they followed the river’s winding path. On the face of it this may sound easier than walking – they didn’t have to carry their bags, there were no hills to climb and they got to sit down the whole way! However, many had never held a paddle before so there was a certain amount of zigzagging along the river which added to their daily mileage quite considerably, and there were a few in the group who had not done any DofE Awards previously, and therefore also had no experience of camping.
I was privileged to have been one of the staff members accompanying the trip and it was genuinely a pleasure to watch the group of young adults take on the river and the elements, showing real resilience, grace, generosity, teamwork and humour. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, the sun shining most days, although there was one horridly cold night which took even the experienced campers by surprise and left the inexperienced needing to be warmed up with hot tea and extra layers. Although they were separated into three groups for the expedition, they camped together and shared games of football in the evening and long chats over a camp fire on that one cold night. They also came together as one group to tackle the rapids at Symonds Yat, each boat taking their turn on the white water, to cheers for those waiting nervously upstream and those clinging with relief onto each other downstream. As staff, we stood on an outcrop of rock with cameras and to throw lines at the ready. Luckily, only the cameras were needed and we captured some of the biggest smiles as the canoes sped past us and we yelled “Keep paddling, keep paddling!” By the end of the four days, the tired and damp group of Year 13s were all told that pending the presentation that they all had to do after the expedition, they have all passed. So, it was a relieved and exhausted group of newly expert canoeists who boarded the coach back to school for the start of half term!
This might have been the sunny Wye Valley in October instead of the rainy hills of southern France in August, but over 20 years on it is comforting to know not much about the Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition has changed. As staff, we spent the week mildly concerned that one of the boys was developing trench foot; waiting for them on bridges, we knew arrival was imminent when we heard their loud and tuneless singing; and all of the group spent much of their time dreaming of the food they would eat when they got home, be that their brother’s Thai curry or a guardian’s roast chicken.
The Duke of Edinburgh intended his Award scheme to be a stop-gap for boys between school and conscription; something to challenge them and keep them occupied. In the modern world though, it has become about inspiring the younger generation to push boundaries, to get involved with local communities through volunteering, and to learn. The DofE motto is ‘Youth without Limits’. It is open to people of all abilities and backgrounds as well as people from all over the world. For me, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award gave me my lifelong love of adventure; it gave me confidence, friendships, skills far beyond learning how to use a compass; and, as with any really good adventure, it gave me a story to tell. I hope the Year 13 expedition group go on to have many more adventures and tell the stories of this one for many years to come!