Duke of Edinburgh's International Award: What, Why & How?

Do you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone, go on amazing adventures, or develop strong leadership and team building skills? If you have a willingness to give it a go, discover why the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award can give you the edge in the race for university places.
Duke of Edinburgh's International Award: What, Why & How?
By Carli Allan
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The blisters, putting up a tent in the pouring rain, or the challenge of scaling a mountain in the midday sun: the memories of a Duke of Edinburgh's International Award can last a lifetime. It can be the event in your secondary education to complete the Bronze Award – and then a life achievement to achieve Silver and Gold. It’s about far more than cooking over an open fire in the wild. It’s about standing out from the rest. It’s all about setting personal challenges and pushing personal boundaries. And it’s about gaining work-ready skills, helping others, pushing yourself physically, and exploring the world.

Founded in the UK, the Award is not a compulsory part of the UK National Curriculum, but more than 110,000 students in the UK alone volunteer to take part in the programme every year. And there are currently more than one million young people worldwide now doing the international version of this award, called the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award.

This extra-curricular activity for teenagers and young adults involves plenty of effort, time (and sweat) at a time when students are studying hard for GCSEs and A Levels – so why do it? Yes, it’s an adventure. (And yes it’s a chance to escape the parents for a weekend!) But, more importantly it builds the skills to equip students for life and work.

In the words of one Gold participant, Pranav (a Year 12 student at Dover Court International School):

“The award has been an outlet for me to try out new things I would not have otherwise partaken in. The expedition was the most notable challenge. Overcoming this challenge taught me the skills of teamwork and collaboration as well as the importance of perseverance.

"For our expedition, we rowed a dragon-boat to a nearby island as a small group of nine under a scorching sun. At one point, every one of us was exhausted and we had not even made it half-way to the island yet. To overcome this challenge, we all had to motivate each other by counting in rhythm to paddle in unison. It was crucial that everyone was paddling to the best of their ability and so supporting each other and making sure we were all right was of high importance.”

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com looks at why and how students join the programme, we ask if it is that golden ticket to university, what schools in Singapore are doing to support students who do the DofE, and how the award has changed due to Covid-19?

What is the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award?

Dover Court DofE students plan their expedition

Named after Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award is an activity programme for 14 to 24-year-olds. There are three progressive levels which, when successfully completed, lead to an internationally recognised Bronze, Silver or Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. Each award involves helping the community/environment, improving fitness, developing new skills, and planning, training for and completing an expedition or exploration. Gold participants also complete the Gold Residential Project, which takes place over a period of at least four nights and five consecutive days; this could be a residential language course, youth camp overseas, voluntary work with national parks, youth parliaments, sports coaching, or being a crew member on a tall ship.

The DofE's International Award says:

"The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award is a non-formal education and learning framework operating in more than 130 countries and territories around the world, through which young people’s achievements outside of academia are recognised and celebrated.

"Using the Award framework and with the support of adult volunteers, young people develop their own bespoke programme, as they work towards achieving the internationally recognised Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards. The Award encourages young people to learn new skills, get physically active, volunteer within their communities and discover a sense of adventure outside the classroom.

"Non-formal education and learning plays a role in the development of skills such as resilience, confidence and communication and can help young people find their purpose, passion and place in the world.”

Cast aside those images you see of students weighed down with backpacks scaling a mountain in the rain – the Award is much more of a gradual climb than a race to the top. The four main sections of the international Award – Volunteering, Physical, Skills and Expedition – focus on many different opportunities for personal development. And with each stage lasting from six months up to more than one year, it’s a long-term commitment.

For your voluntary service section, you must do something useful without getting paid – and that could be helping children to read in libraries, leading a voluntary scout group, litter picking, or working at an animal rescue centre. Get ready to raise the heartbeat and break out a sweat for the physical activity, where you can choose any sport, dance or fitness activity, from archery to windsurfing, caving to tap dancing.

The skills section is your opportunity to learn a new skill in the arts, animal care, gardening, fishing, marine biology, first aid, blogging – the list continues and is as varied as it is long. And finally, for your adventurous journey section, you will need to plan, train for and complete an unaccompanied, expedition lasting from two to four days; this can be completed by foot, cycle, canoe or kayak.

How do I sign up for the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award?

Dover Court is one of five schools in Singapore to offer the Award

A school, college or youth group has to be licensed by the DofE charity to run the programme, and there is currently just a small number of international schools in Singapore offering the programme; known as the Duke of Edinburgh International Award outside the UK, it is also referred to as the National Youth Achievement Award in Singapore.

Those offering the Award include Dover Court International School, UWCSEA (Dover), Dulwich College (Singapore), Nexus and Tanglin Trust School.

Schools will typically run weekly training sessions where students can plan for their future adventure trip, learn skills, and update their online DofE record book. The DofE leader at Dover Court International School, Laura Knapp, explains:

“Topics that we will cover at these sessions include basic first aid, meal planning and general camp-craft. We have a handful of staff members with various International Award qualifications who are able to facilitate and monitor the students’ progress regularly, and we will also run a drop-in clinic to support participants with providing their evidence towards completion.”

Why should I do the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award?

DofE students from Dover Court take to the water

Around 25% of A Level students in the UK achieved an A/A* grade in 2019, and in Singapore IB students achieved a high average of 34.48 in the same year. While making the grade still very much matters, it is more important than ever to show universities that you have something more than your academic achievements – and the DofE Award is one opportunity to develop ‘soft skills’ to add to your application.

Universities and employers are looking for a strong combination of leadership and teamworking skills – and the Award allows students to achieve this in one go. There are stories of students who didn’t get the grades they expected for their A Levels but were still offered their university place because of their passion, skills and commitment shown in the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award.

And there are many more tales of students who have found that the Award has changed the course of his life. According to the DofE website, 62% of participants felt that the Award helped them make a difference to their community, and 82% felt that the award made them want to continue will volunteering activities. And did we mention that it’s lots of fun, too!

Dover Court student Pranav joined the Award because he wanted to take part in “an ongoing volunteering, physical and skill activity all with an exciting expedition at the end”.

He added: “The volunteering aspect of DofE has allowed me to earn experience in helping the elderly with certain aspects of their lives. This has helped me realise how much I enjoy helping others.

"Without the DofE experience, I would have not realised this and would not have a goal for the end of high school to be motivated for. I am grateful to the DofE award for helping me recognise my passion and subsequently giving me my goals for university.”

Andy Jefferson, Head of the Award at Nexus gives an insight into why his students do the Award.

“Our learners tell us that ‘DofE’ really does help with their university applications because they can talk about the new skills they have gained, as well as their commitment and sense of achievement. It gives them a taste of adventure, a chance to take on new challenges and plenty of ways to help ‘sell themselves’ in a personal statement or interview.”

While students only have a degree of academic freedom when studying A Levels or the IB Diploma Programme, the Award framework is not prescriptive; it can be tailored to your specific needs and interests. It is very much a personal challenge where the only person you are competing against is yourself. And it is constantly adapting to the changing times with a new list of activities recently added to include public speaking, engaging in politics, learning about climate change and becoming a mentor to someone younger.

Pranav shared his experience of the volunteering activity.

“I most enjoyed the volunteering aspect as I was able to connect with new people in an elderly care home. Listening to these people tell stories about their childhoods and the hardships they had endured in their lives always captivated me.

"In addition, the experience has had a major impact on my personal growth as it also helped reshape my perception of different people in the world. It has done this by helping me more clearly understand the diversity of different backgrounds and being more open-minded to different cultures.”

The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award has a saying. “Are you world ready?’, which reflects its ethos of developing well-rounded young people.

As Dover Court’s Laura Knapp explains:

“Presently, many young people often find that it is tricky to ‘stand out’ and establish themselves from other students who may have similar grades or academic backgrounds.

"In the future, as a young-adult attending their first job or university interview, participants of the Award scheme will be able to give defined examples to situations where they have demonstrated resilience or good time-management etc; important skills that will be difficult to evidence otherwise. These vital ‘life-skills’ that are developed whilst undertaking the award scheme will continue to be beneficial throughout adulthood.”

And Jefferson at Nexus adds:

“We feel that the DofE helps young people to plan together effectively and to bond as a team, often with people outside of their immediate friendship group. They learn campcraft, navigation, first aid, presentation skills, tolerance and organisation! Participants take responsibility for their actions and become more independent through their involvement in the award.”

Do I need to complete all three stages of the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award?

No, you can choose to stop after Bronze or Silver, but you must complete each level before moving to the next. The Award scheme does become increasingly challenging, and requires higher levels of time-management, independence, self-motivation and commitment as students progress. All that hard work is rewarded, though, if you achieve the Gold as this is presented to students by Prince Edward, a member of the British Royal Family, at one of the many ceremonies held worldwide.

Are there any differences between the Duke of Edinburgh Award in Singapore and in the UK?

A large part of the DofE Award is spent in the great outdoors

The Award runs in more than 130 countries worldwide, and its framework remains the same wherever it is delivered. That said, no two Awards are ever the same as students can follow a multitude of paths to complete each activity and level.

There's no significant difference between the DofE framework or The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award, as The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Foundation explains:

“Around the world, the Award is known by different names, but the framework always remains the same. The only exception to this is where some very small tweaks which may be needed to accommodate any cultural, religious or social considerations.”

Dover Court’s Laura Knapp explains what students can expect in Singapore:

“There are copious opportunities in Singapore available to the participants when choosing their ‘skill, service or physical recreation’ activities and SMART targets. This includes everything from figure skating to learning about robotics. Many schools have a rich extra-curricular programme too, many of which can be counted towards one of the activity sections.

“In Singapore, we are in the slightly unique situation where the most common type of Adventurous Journey globally (hiking) is not suitable. However, we are able to complete our expeditions by dragon boating in small groups and camping on an island, which is very exciting.”

How has the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award changed due to Covid?

As Covid-19 continues to spread worldwide, the pandemic has affected various parts of the Award. There are currently temporary changes to the Award that make it easier for students to continue with their journey during these challenging times. For example, anyone who is unable to volunteer with an organisation outside their home or online can now volunteer from home for family members, and there is the option of completing a Virtual Bronze Exploration (VBE) that can be completed from home.

Knapp adds: “Obviously the Adventurous Journey aspect of the Award has been postponed currently, as it is not possible to camp in tents whilst being socially distanced! The Award scheme has made certain allowances such as if students have completed their ‘practice’ expedition but not yet their ‘qualifying’ journey, the school can retrospectively class their first expedition as a qualifying expedition. We plan to complete our Adventurous Journeys as soon as feasibly able to.

“Activities can also be adjusted to be done at home, if it is not possible to be done normally. Rather than trumpet lessons with a teacher, for example, they can complete their required hours at home on a weekly basis and upload evidence such as photos or videos to their online profile for their assessor to monitor closely.”

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