We have returned to St John’s this week after an Easter holiday that combined both a sense of celebration when lockdown eased and a period of national mourning for the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. The union flag flew at half-mast over school, as it did on buildings across the UK, until the day after his funeral on Saturday 17 April and nationally, although not universal, there has been a wave of support for Her Majesty the Queen and her family. While the Duke of Edinburgh might well have been the first to recognise his own fallibility, his death has elicited many reflections on the positive aspects of his life and what we can learn from the experiences that such a long life encompasses.
Our school motto at St John’s is “seek those things which are above”, taken from Collosians 3:1 “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.” The motto, which can be seen on the archway behind Gloucester House, is an encouragement to us all to live a good and faithful life and regardless of personal faith, I feel it also reminds us to live a life where we try to look beyond our own immediate concerns. I talk often about my hopes for our pupils’ time at St John’s and, at the heart of this, my hope that they will develop a care and concern for others, and a sense of service towards the communities they belong to now and in their futures.
Many of the discussions about Prince Philip’s life – and in a broader sense the lives of many of his generation – have focussed on this idea of service. He initially gave service to our country through his distinguished military career that, with so many others, included active service during WWII. When his wife, then Princess Elizabeth, became Queen unexpectedly early, he gave up the career he loved to be her consort and to support her and the royal family. Apparently, on hearing of the death of King George VI, Prince Philip felt “like the world had collapsed on him”. It was a time when society was very patriarchal and a man giving up his career to support his wife would have been almost unheard of. However difficult this might have been, he did it with no outward fuss, and spent the next seven decades by her side while carving out a role that would allow him to contribute meaningfully.
One of Prince Philip’s great legacies, and one that feels most immediately relevant to those of us who work with children, is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Launched in 1956, the scheme’s aim is to encourage young people to take on their own challenges, follow their own passions, uncover new skills and make a difference in their communities. Prince Philip believed his experience of education – with its emphasis on activity, service and rounded personal development – had the potential to be transformational and, in the post-war world when it launched, it was immediately successful. Despite all the changes to society in the years since, the fundamental elements of the scheme have changed very little and its ethos remains as relevant to the 14-24 years old who participate today. In the UK alone, over three million young people have achieved awards since 1956, and it operates in over 140 countries with upwards of eight million participants globally since it began.
Every year at St John’s, we have many pupils taking participating in Bronze, Silver and Gold challenges and younger pupils looking forward to starting the scheme. I am a great fan of the DofE Award – having completed the Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards in my own school days – and I credit it as being one of the reasons that I went into teaching. I enjoyed every element of the award and, for the service section of my Gold Award, I helped to deliver the DofE programme to younger pupils at my school, including accompanying them on the Bronze expeditions. This experience saw me complete my teacher training and become a unit leader, delivering the award in the first year of my very first teaching job. While schools are most actively involved with delivering the expedition aspect of the award, it is the focus on service that always really strikes home for me. There is no option regarding the time commitment given to this element of the award and I think this is indicative of the philosophy of the award: character development requires individuals to spend concerted time looking beyond their own needs.
When we choose to give time and help to others, we all benefit. Sometimes it can feel that service might require great sacrifice and, of course, it can. But we all have the ability to illustrate service within our communities. The moments you go out of your way to help someone else are moments of service. Your commitment to charitable fundraising are moments of service. The important thing is to look outwards, think of others and consider how you can make a difference – big or small. As we reflect on the passing of a generation whose service to their communities and the nation was vast, the Duke of Edinburgh’s life embodies a philosophy of service that we can all aim to demonstrate in our actions on a daily basis.