The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award as a Rite of Passage

Duke of Edinburghs Award




The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1956. The aim was to motivate boys aged between 15 and 18 to become involved in a balanced program of voluntary self-development activities to take them through the potentially difficult period between adolescence and adulthood.

The program was designed by a small team, led by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh; Dr Kurt Hahn, German educationalist and founder of Outward Bound and the United World Colleges; and Sir John (later Lord) Hunt, the leader of the first team to conquer Mount Everest.

The Award programme is now run in over 120 countries under different titles; for example; The International Award for Young People; The President’s Award; The National Youth Achievement Award and, in Australia, The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, Australia (or simply, Duke of Ed).

Participants are required to follow programmes of physical recreation, skill development and service volunteering and also undertake an adventurous journey. There are three Award levels – Bronze, Silver and Gold – of increasing length and challenge. Gold participants must also complete a residential project. Minimum ages for entry into an Award programme are 14, 15 and 16 for Bronze, Silver and Gold respectively.

The Award programme shares many similarities with adolescent Rites of Passage, so I’m interested to explore whether the Duke of Ed can in fact be called a modern day Rite of Passage.

Separation, Transition and Return

The three core elements of separation, transition and return of a Rite of Passage are also found in the Award scheme.

Award participants are separated from their parents and their home environment to go and stay for one or more nights with other young people and adult mentors while undertaking their adventurous journey and residential project. The adventurous project is typically undertaken in unfamiliar, rural surroundings. Young people also separate from their parents to take part in physical recreation, skill development and service volunteering.  The minimum ages set for the Award also create a sense of anticipation while waiting to be eligible and there is a clear start to undertaking the Award through the sign up and log book issue.

Participants undergo a period of transition in which they have begun their journey towards an Award, but have not yet completed it. This journeying is also reflected at a larger scale through the graded challenges of the three Awards and also at a smaller scale through the journeying to complete each section of the Award.

On completion of the Award, participants attend an Award ceremony where they are recognised for their achievements in front of family and friends (return). The Award has wide international recognition heightening the sense of achievement and a new belonging to a worldwide group of Award holders. For many, there are opportunities to then become Award helpers and leaders themselves.

Story telling, challenge and honouring

Within the transition phase, Rites of Passage include time for sharing stories to teach young people the values of their community and what it means to be a man or woman and how to respect and consider others. There is a challenge which takes a young person out of their comfort zone and challenges them to complete something they have had little or no prior experience attempting. Then there is a time of honouring the young person to help develop and bring out the unique gifts they can offer to society.

In the Award Scheme, values are taught in  a number of ways – through service for others, through training and mentoring from older men and women to help them achieve their goals and through direct experience of the rewards of effort, fitness, developing new skills and working together.

The adventurous journey is universally challenging for participants – typically taking place in unfamiliar terrain, with heavy packs and with minimal supervision by adults. But other sections of the Award present their own challenges; through physical recreation, mastering new skills and completing community work etc. There is also the overriding challenge of pushing oneself to complete each section and achieve the Awards.

Individual gifts and talents are found through attempting different activities and allowing participants to self discover their unique qualities.

My own experience

I achieved my Bronze, Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards in my teens. The experiences gained were highly influential in shaping my life. They imparted a lifelong passion for mountains and wild places, seeded an interest in geology that would shape my professional life, built the foundations for some of my closest friendships, taught me how to handle failure and gave me a confidence in my abilities that still influences my activities today.

 I owe all this to the Award Scheme, but also to the men and women who volunteered to help young people like me achieve their Awards.

I still remember clearly the freezing cold and exhaustion on expedition, the exhilaration of completing an 80km mountain backpack, the discomfort I experienced the first time I wiped the bottom of a disabled young person, the disappointment of failing my Bronze Medallion life saving medal and the satisfaction of finding the determination to try again. But perhaps mostly, I remember standing in front of the Duke of Edinburgh being handed my Gold Award at St James Palace in London, dressed up in my suit surrounded by proud mothers and fathers and believing I was now a man.

What others say

Research conducted in the UK in 2007 showed that the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme (known as DofE in the UK) is a successful personal development programme for young people.

Key findings were:
90% of young people said doing their DofE has given them opportunities to help others.
82% noted their DofE has made them want to continue with volunteering/voluntary activities.
62% feel that doing their DofE has helped them make a positive difference to their local community.
74% of young people said they developed self-esteem.
64% feel that as a result of DofE they are better at sport or physical activity.
74% of young people said it allowed them to try activities they would never have tried before.
71% of young people identified improved self-belief.
Three quarters of young people think their DofE Leaders are inspirational. us/PEARS impact report – summary for stakeholders final.pdf

Is it a Rite of Passage?

I think there is little doubt in my mind that in completing the Award Scheme, I completed a Rite of Passage. Whether the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme is a Rite of Passage for everyone, may depend on the way it is approached.

The Scheme is most successful when the young people are challenged to find the self-determination to complete the Award themselves and to undertake the activities with minimal assistance from adults. Once the Award becomes another subject on the school curriculum in which students just need to turn up for, or are even required to, attend pre-arranged activities, the benefits are weakened. Once safety concerns lead to participants being herded in large groups and/or required to walk with adults to complete the adventurous journey, the individual sense of adventure and challenge is diminished.

It was my experience that the elements of the Award I gained most from were facing the challenges of the mountains with a small group of young people knowing (or at least believing!) we were on our own and initiating and following activities that had nothing to do with school or my parents.

 The other factor that for me was influential was the voluntary nature of most of the adult help I received. I was inspired by adults who “walked the talk” by providing community service themselves.

What might be missing?

When I completed the Award there was an additional section called Design for Living.  I remember attending group discussions around personal development and life skills. This section is no longer included, but for me provided instruction about the world of adults I was to enter. I remember learning about suicide, marriage, sex, illness and disability. The passing on of adult knowledge is a key element of a Rite of Passage and I believe not fully included in the current Award Scheme.

The role of the Award coordinator as mentor is also important. Their role can often be more than just informational and organisational. Young people benefit from ongoing mentorship as they progress through the Award to help inspire but also to process the experiences being gained. Mentoring was provided in traditional societies as part of ongoing support after the Rite of Passage. However, it has to be said that ongoing mentoring is missing in many modern Rite of Passage programmes and the adult involvement over the length of the Award programme probably fulfils this need better than many week long Rite of Passage programmes.

The Award is completed in mixed gender groups with mixed gender adult supervision. This brings many benefits in terms of understanding differing gender perspectives and attitudes, but  there is also something very special about young men just being surrounded by men during a Rite of Passage and being able to openly share and discuss male issues.

A Rite of Passage held over a number of days allows participants to enter a receptive liminal state. Completing Award activities usually takes place piecemeal, meaning some of that impact is lost. The time away completing the Adventurous journey and the Residential Project help fill that gap.

Focus is given in Rite of passage camps on parents changing the way they parent a young person when they return as a young man. It marks a specific turning point at which greater privileges can be negotiated and attitudes shifted. The development of young people through the Awards is more gradual and parental involvement is much more limited, other than as a bank and taxi service. If the parent: child relationship does not change in tandem, then this can lead to conflict or a tuning out which will hinder growth.

One key element many contemporary Rites of Passage programmes struggle to provide is the incorporation of the returning young man or woman into adult life. Holding a celebration on return is not enough. The young man or woman can only complete his journey towards adulthood once he has given back to the community that which he has gained, sharing his own unique abilities with others. A classic example of this are Raleigh Global Ambassadors, who go back into the community after an Raleigh International expedition to give back. For me, this element was incorporated by my becoming a trainee leader, but it is certainly not a requirement of the Award. Incorporation of this element would make the Award more powerful.

Finally, there is something very special about being surrounded by men or women on a Rite of Passage camp, one of which might be your father or guardian, and knowing that the sole purpose of the adults being there is to help you grow to become a man or women. In any activity, the number of Award helpers will be outnumbered by the participants. Being on a camp where the reverse is true is a very unique and somewhat humbling experience.


I believe the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme has an important and relevant role to play in the personal development of young people today. It can be a Rite of Passage for young people, but there are features of modern Rite of Passage camp programmes that are missing and could be used to supplement the programme. Conversely, modern Rite of Passage camps miss out on some of the benefits of duration, international recognition and ongoing mentoring provided by the Award programme.

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