Academia is important, but character development shapes students into happy, healthy young people who lead fulfilling lives.
In our metric-driven world, schools tend to find themselves in competition over whose students achieve the highest exam grades. After all, a first-rate academic education is key to top qualifications and highly sought-after university places. But it’s easy to lose ourselves in these metrics – it’s easy for schools to focus solely on getting students through exams with top grades and workplace skills.
But what about other essential skills? Strength of character, communication, teamwork, and resilience, for starters. Young people need these skills to lead rewarding lives and form strong relationships. That’s why Gordonstoun School, Moray, has never followed educational models that focus purely on exam grades. Instead, the school integrates academic lessons into holistic curriculums that develop students’ social, emotional, and cultural awareness, too.
Gordonstoun’s Character-Building Curriculums
As a co-independent boarding school, Gordonstoun makes room for plenty of opportunities to help students develop a range of character-based qualities. From its Dialogue Society and Dialogue Symposiums to its sail training voyages, expeditions into the Scottish wilderness and opportunities to volunteer in service to the community, students learn so much more than academic skills.
Instead of confining all lessons within classrooms, teachers also hold many lessons outdoors so students can spend more time out in the open. Some of Gordonstoun’s most popular expeditions include voyages aboard the school’s 80-foot training yacht, the Ocean Spirit of Moray. Most students journey off Scotland’s west coast, though others adventure as far as Svalbard.
As students board the yacht, the captain welcomes them to ‘one of Gordonstoun’s many classrooms’, where they learn skills which cannot be taught in front of a whiteboard. Students learn how to work as part of a team, they learn resilience in the face of adversity and they find they are capable of more than they thought possible on a demanding adventure.
But academia and character skills aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s Gordonstoun’s interdisciplinary syllabuses that help students excel both academically and in their personal development.
Duke of Edinburgh Award
As part of Gordonstoun’s dedication to outdoor learning, many students enjoy taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Award, the world’s leading youth achievement award. The DofE programme challenges students to take on the outdoors in a series of team-related and individual expeditions and tasks. Instead of competing against others, participants learn to push their own boundaries and take on challenges outside of their comfort zones. The focus is on personal growth and developing self-confidence.
As the home of the DofE Award, Gordonstoun has inspired schools in 140 countries to offer millions of young people the DofE opportunity. And, today, employers around the world value the award at all three levels: bronze, silver, and gold.
In 1956, former student Prince Philip launched the DofE Award with headmaster of the time Dr Kurt Hahn. Together, they designed the Award based on the Moray Badge, Gordonstoun’s original outdoor pursuits challenge, which the Duke of Edinburgh himself completed in the 1930s. Prince Philip was one of Gordonstoun’s first ten students and stayed in touch with the school until he passed away in April 2021.
Outward Bound Trust
Dr Hahn also founded the Outward Bound Movement, now known as the Outward Bound Trust. This educational charity helps over one million young people develop life skills by engaging them in challenging outdoor courses. To this day, the Outward Bound Trust aligns with Gordonstoun’s focus on outdoor learning and personal growth.
Contributing to the Community
Though academia is an essential part of school education, Gordonstoun also recognises the importance of community service. All senior students become a member of one of Gordonstoun’s nine community and rescue services – such as Gordonstoun’s very own fire service – where the focus is to learn how to put others’ needs before your own. Meanwhile, junior students get involved in other community schemes, such as cleaning local beaches, playing music for care-home residents, and raising funds for local charities.
Gordonstoun also manages international service projects in Romania, Kenya, and Thailand, which allow students the opportunity to support international communities while exposing themselves to new cultures. The school’s commitment to community service helps students develop a sense of social responsibility and learn how to give back without the expectation of reward.
Gordonstoun welcomes young people from over 40 countries to create a culturally diverse environment for its student community. Internationalism underpins the school’s academic curriculum, which includes an International and Spiritual Citizenship (ISC) course. This course delves into health education, spiritual development, environmental issues, and life skills. Teachers encourage students to work with classmates from different backgrounds and help them learn how to accept each other’s values and opinions.
Meanwhile, senior students can also experience living abroad through international exchanges, international service projects, and Round Square.
Gordonstoun is one of the founding schools behind Round Square, a network of 190 schools around the globe that share the ethos of teaching responsibility alongside academic excellence. Round Square provides students with opportunities to attend global and regional conferences, take part in international exchanges, and volunteer for major charitable projects.
University of Edinburgh Research
In 2020, Dr Simon Beames from the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh researched the efficacy of Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom curriculum. Over 1,000 alumni who have attended the school over the past 80 years shared their thoughts on Gordonstoun’s character-building educational model.
Dr Beames also asked Gordonstoun’s students’ parents for their thoughts on the educational model, as parents often have a clearer insight into their children’s development than children do themselves.
Overall, Dr Beames’ research found that:
- Out-of-classroom learning pushes students to try challenges they would otherwise avoid. Young people are more likely to develop a ‘have a go’ mindset, which they can apply to all future endeavours, not just their school careers. Schools can cultivate this mentality by making more of their non-academic curriculum compulsory. The more subjects students tackle, the more experiences and skills they’ll gain and the more they’ll feel inclined to challenge themselves.
- Students who have a go at several challenges learn that failure is inevitable, that no one is good at everything, and that they need to fail to improve. They learn to persevere and conquer their fears, both of their performances and of how their peers will respond to them. Many Gordonstoun alumni told Dr Beames that gaining the ability to ‘bounce back’ at school helped them overcome later career setbacks.
- Students who take part in many outdoor expeditions lead, work with, and even rescue their peers in wet, challenging conditions. These expeditions can help young people develop humility and respect for others that has nothing to do with culture or background but, instead, character.
- Pitting young women against young men in different scenarios helps students realise they – and others – can thrive or struggle in any subject area, regardless of gender. This can help young people later overcome gendered expectations in the workplace.
94 percent of survey participants agreed out-of-classroom experiences had a positive effect on their personal growth and development. This highlights the fact that, although grades are an important reflection of academic progress, it’s character skills that help us thrive in our careers and relationships.
Gordonstoun’s Boarding School Education
One of the highlights of a boarding school environment is the sense of community that students enjoy. Living with peers helps young people learn the importance of respect, compassion, and acceptance. They learn how to take responsibility for their share of teamwork and develop long-lasting relationships. Meanwhile, Gordonstoun’s outdoor pursuits inspire, motivate, and challenge students, providing the foundations for leadership and communication skills, not to mention the resilience young people need to develop to thrive in their future challenges.
About Gordonstoun School
Gordonstoun delivers a unique blend of indoor and outdoor learning, based on the philosophy of original headmaster Dr Hahn, who believed students should learn life skills alongside academic skills over their school careers. During his tenure, Dr Hahn came up with Gordonstoun’s motto, Plus est en vous (there is more in you), which the school still holds today. The idea is that the more experiences students embrace, the more they will realise how much they are capable of. This motto aligns with Gordonstoun’s ongoing commitment to not only help students thrive academically but also develop lasting character skills.
This forward-thinking approach to learning has gained even more traction during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Gordonstoun has seen an influx in admissions enquiries over recent months. Many prospective students are keen to enjoy a Gordonstoun education in the school’s 200-acre woodland campus, the Moray Firth beaches, and the surrounding Scottish Highlands – where Prince Philip, his sons, and two of his grandchildren learnt during their time at Gordonstoun, too.
Indoor lessons take place on Gordonstoun’s historic campus, which comprises several seventeenth-century buildings. Over the past eight decades, Gordonstoun has complemented these buildings with state-of-the-art facilities, including a modern sports centre and a performing arts department with a studio theatre, rehearsal spaces, and dance studios.
Get to know Gordonstoun better at the Virtual Taste of Gordonstoun Webinar, which will take place on Saturday 21st August from 1–2 pm BST. This webinar is ideal for prospective families who are considering entry at all years.