Many people who are familiar with Gordonstoun, the leading co-educational school in Elgin, Scotland, have heard of the school’s founder Dr Kurt Hahn. Dr Hahn is best known as the inspiration for – and the driving force behind – the prestigious Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which he developed at Gordonstoun with Prince Philip. Although the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award has its roots at Gordonstoun, the Award has touched the lives of young people in nearly 150 countries.

Renowned Educational Thinker Dr Kurt Hahn

To fully understand Dr Hahn’s input into the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, it’s important to note his early commitment to morality and integrity. Born to Jewish parents in Berlin, Dr Hahn developed his rich pedagogical philosophies in the German universities of Heidelberg and Gottingen. He also studied abroad at the University of Oxford. During these formative years, Dr Hahn’s educational ethos and general worldview were shaped by his profound love of Plato’s Republic. He also admired various features and facets of the British public school system that he saw first-hand during his Oxford years.

Dr Hahn entered the world of senior educational administration shortly after World War I, partnering with former German Chancellor Prince Max of Baden to found the Salem School in Southern Germany. After speaking out against the rise of the Nazi Party in the aftermath of World War I, Dr Hahn learned from senior government officials that he was no longer safe in Germany.

The Birth of Gordonstoun School

Dr Hahn fled to Moray, Scotland, where he launched a brand-new school. Motivated by his passion for sharing knowledge and shaping young minds, he found sponsorship and financial backing from wealthy local families to establish the British Salem School of Gordonstoun in 1934. Gordonstoun is named after the 13th-century estate upon which it was built. The school quickly gained a reputation for Dr Hahn’s focus on character growth and broad academic curriculum. Today, the campus stretches over 200 acres of wooded land, and students enjoy many lessons and activities outdoors, making the most of the school’s tranquil backdrop.

Prince Philip and the Moray Badge

Prince Philip was one of Gordonstoun’s first ten students. While attending the independent boarding school, he earned the Moray Badge, an award that Dr Hahn designed to recognise self-improvement achievements. Students received the Moray Badge after completing a series of projects, expeditions, rescue services, and fitness exercises to combat what Hahn called the ‘Six Declines of Modern Youth’.

The Moray Badge was so successful that, in 1954, Dr Hahn contacted Prince Philip (then a former student) to expand the programme for a much bigger student population. Together, Dr Hahn and Prince Philip developed a national Award programme that shared the foundations of the original Moray Badge: the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The Development of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

Prince Philip was eager to help young men bridge the gap between the end of their school education at age 15 and their enlistment into National Service at age 18. He viewed these years as an ideal time for students to find new interests, build self-confidence, and solidify a sense of purpose. Therefore, he considered the Duke of Edinburgh Award a great way to develop the next generation of well-rounded, productive citizens.

In 1955, Prince Philip planned the Duke of Edinburgh pilot programme based on his discussions with the British Minister of Education and several national voluntary youth organisations. In 1956, the Duke of Edinburgh Award was launched as a royal charter corporation under the leadership of Sir John Hunt.

True to the spirit of Dr Hahn’s original Moray Badge, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award draws on the virtues of service, exploration, and athleticism. Originally, participants completed four sections of the Award: Rescue and Public Service, Expeditions, Pursuits and Projects, and Fitness. These categories have since evolved into volunteering, physical, skills, and expedition challenges. The Award provides holistic support, engenders practical skill-building, and helps young people develop their resilience and teamwork skills.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Expansion

After launching through a small network of voluntary youth organisations, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expanded rapidly to include local education authorities and the British Army, Navy, and Air Force. Several independent schools and grammar schools throughout the UK also partnered with the programme. The Award quickly established as an unequivocal success. By the end of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award’s first year, roughly 7,000 young men had started the programme, and 1,000 had already completed it.

By the programme’s second year, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award had more than doubled its participating organisations and overall student enrolment. The programme also expanded overseas and began to break down its gender barriers with a new pilot programme for girls. From here, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expanded its international outreach further. And, in the early 1980s, the programme widened its age restrictions to allow young people aged 14–24 to participate.

The Continuing Legacy of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

Today, the Duke of Edinburgh Award serves young people of all backgrounds across the globe. In its own words, the programme helps young people ‘build lifelong belief in themselves’ by enabling them to take on challenges, follow their passions, and discover talents they never knew they had. Gordonstoun School encourages students to partake in the Duke of Edinburgh Award as part of its commitment to a curriculum that extends well beyond the classroom.

Learn more about Gordonstoun School.