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Woodridge College goes wild at Gordonstoun: invaluable lessons learned

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


I am the director of outdoor education at Woodridge College and Preparatory School, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

When I was awarded an ISASA visitorship grant,1 I decided that I wanted to investigate ‘best practice’ with regard to education in the outdoors, especially in secondary school years and particularly in independent schools in the United Kingdom (UK), during June and July last year. My interest is rooted in Kurt Hahn’s philosophy,2 therefore my research centred around schools that used his philosophy. I wanted to incorporate my findings into a South African context, to enhance the Woodridge College and Preparatory School outdoor programme and to embolden other ISASA schools to take their outdoor programmes to the next level. Outdoor education is, simply put, the curriculum unfolding outdoors. For the first time ever, we live in a world where more than half of the population now live in urban areas.3 In the UK today, children live in a country where they spend half the amount of time that their parents did in the outdoors.4 They spend, on average, 17 hours per week glued to a digital screen,5 and so outdoor education and access to nature is more relevant than ever before. Twelve per cent of children in the UK have not engaged with the natural environment in the past year.6 It was these alarming statistics that prompted me to look at visiting the UK – a country that has produced some of the greatest explorers and adventurers of all time.7 I wanted to find out what efforts are being made to encourage outdoor opportunities in the UK in the light of these statistics, since Woodridge College was founded upon Hahn’s philosophy.

Who was Kurt Hahn?

Hahn was one of the most important school reformers of the 20th century worldwide. He began his career as a politician and was not only the founder and headmaster of famous boarding schools in Germany and Scotland (Gordonstoun), but also the initiator and organiser of international schools and programmes across the continents that still flourish today and which – at a time of intensive discussion on violence, drugs and missing perspectives for youth – deserve our attention more than ever. All the organisations and initiatives founded by Hahn – the Round Square Conference Schools,8 the Outward Bound Schools,9 the International Award for Young People10 and the United World Colleges11 – try to impart two basic insights to adolescents: (1) you are needed; and (2) you are able to achieve more than others think and you believe yourself. In 1934, Hahn founded Gordonstoun School in Moray, Scotland, upon four pillars of education, with each pillar representing a part of the whole curriculum. These are internationalism, challenge, responsibility and service. My interest in Hahn was sparked in 1996 when the school in which I was working in the south of England ventured up to Gordonstoun for a weekend. It was there that I was first enlightened by the motto, ‘Plus est en vous’ (‘There is more in you’). A few years earlier in South Africa, in 1983, I had had the opportunity to be a member of Veld and Vlei (Sedgefield), which had originated from the Outward Bound idea.12 It was Veld and Vlei that had ignited my love for adventure and challenge, and my 12 subsequent years spent in Europe had given me so many opportunities to go on numerous adventurous journeys. I returned from the UK to take up a post at Woodridge College and Preparatory School, where the ideals of Kurt Hahn underpinned the values of the college, which had been established in 1966. (The Preparatory School was established in 1936.) Headmaster and founder, Lesley Carter, had gone on a journey to Scotland to see what Gordonstoun College was all about. Woodridge is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty set among hills, rivers, the natural bush and near the coast, and so the Kurt Hahn philosophy seemed perfect for an outward-bound school. As a father teaching at Woodridge, I had the Gordonstoun School motto, ‘There is more in you’, ringing in my ears.


Gordonstoun School in Scotland is about 60 km from Inverness, 1.5 km from the coast of the Moray Firth and about 50 km from the Cairngorms National Park. Set in a beautiful 80-hectare woodland campus, the buildings are a mix of a stately castle, old Second World War barrack buildings, some recently built buildings and the famous Round Square, a perfectly round building with an area of lawn in the middle. It is this building that gives its name to the global group of schools founded by Hahn, the Round Square Schools. Gordonstoun is rightly seen as the beacon of the Kurt Hahn philosophy. Recently, an independent study by Simon Beams of Edinburgh University,13 which sampled over 1 000 Gordonstoun alumni, indicated that what the school ‘does’ to provide learning experiences outside the classroom has lifelong benefits, academically and health-wise. Headmaster, Titus Edge, says that the school constantly does a recalibration of the balance between academics, sport and the outdoors. ‘We found [at one point] that there were too many examinations and teachers were constantly teaching to the test,’ he adds. Gordonstoun is the biggest boarding school in Scotland. The market is highly competitive and comprises 250 big private schools (these parents can pay fees of approximately £36 000 a year). Gordonstoun can proudly claim a niche market: sailing, expeditions and service for 16-year-old students and A-level (aged 18) students show the commitment Gordonstoun has to character education through ‘challenge’. No sports fixture, academic or cultural activity may interfere with the time these children spend out in the Cairngorms, on the Ocean Spirit – Gordonstoun’s 80-foot, ocean-going boat – or while they are being of service in nine different areas in the school and the local community. Every senior student must become a member of one of the school’s nine rescue and community services. Training for service takes place on Wednesday afternoons, and three or four times a term, students must commit to be of service as volunteer coastguards, pool lifeguards, volunteer firefighters, technical service assistants (sound and lighting) or sports leaders (refereeing and coaching) for junior schools and primary schools in the community. Students may miss other school activities to be of service. The Grade 10s (15- and 16-year-olds) are in training to do service the next year, and the 17-year-olds are all in active service. On all international sports tours, too, students must be of service, whether it be visiting orphanages or old age homes and communities, for example.

Trained to become volunteer coastguards

At the base next to the Gordonstoun Fire Department, I met Richard, an economics teacher and member of the volunteer coastguards at Gordonstoun, who explained that there were about 25 children who had chosen this option as the service component of their Grade 11 year. Every Wednesday, they meet with Richard, three other staff members and a qualified coastguard, who comes to train them in one aspect of the job or another. It so happened that I was there for a first aid refresher session. Volunteer coastguards are the emergency service responsible for coordinating maritime search and rescue in the UK. The Gordonstoun volunteers can be called out at any time, night or day, to help search for and rescue people in difficulties – be it on cliffs, stuck in mud or in water. Volunteers also report and deal with pollution and other hazards, and work with other emergency services and local authorities during major incidents. The students are trained by Her Majesty’s (HM) Coastguard14 in first aid, map work, search techniques, communications and skills required for their local Moray Firth area. I spoke to one of the students, who said he was excited by knowing he could be called upon at any time to help someone in distress.

Bushcraft, rock climbing, kayaking and sailing

Outdoor leadership is currently run by the French teacher, James Smith. In leadership service, students learn new outdoor skills and learn how to train the prep school children and those in local primary schools. In half a term, they’ll do four or five rotations. So, for example, they’ll go out with a qualified member of staff to experience rock climbing, and they will show other children how to tie knots and run a belay, etc. They also do the same for fly fishing, orienteering (a competitive sport in which runners have to find their way across rough country with the aid of a map and compass), kayaking, sailing and bushcraft (wilderness survival skills). Outdoor leadership volunteers also run water stations and marshal at local cycling and running events. On the Wednesday afternoon I was there, Smith was preparing his Grade 11s to plan an adventure/radio scavenger hunt for the Grade 6s and Grade 7s from the prep school. This young group was having an ‘adventure week’. They were going to be introduced to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), together with the orienteering course and twoway radios. The objective was to find the right control points and radio the code through to headquarters (HQ) using the international alphabet code, to see if they had it right.


As the school wants to give Gordonstoun students a global perspective, the children must pay for two-three-week trips that are arranged in the summer holidays for Grade 11 students. One of these trips is to Romania, where they stay with abandoned, disabled children and they’re able to give the orphanage staff some relief.15 The Romania trip has been in existence for 19 years. Another trip, this time with a 22-year-old history, is to north-eastern Kenya, where the students teach lessons, build toilet blocks, paint classrooms and play sport with the children. A third trip (at 31 years old) goes to north-west Thailand, where Gordonstoun students help local communities to put in water tanks and systems that bring water to remote villages. Through the Round Square association, three students will also visit Sri Lanka or Borneo every year.

‘The students are trained by Her Majesty’s (HM) Coastguard in first aid, map work, search techniques, communications and skills required for their local Moray Firth area.’

Sailing and succession planning

What adventure pursuits are available at any one time is dependent upon the certified staff they have at Gordonstoun. For a short while, the school’s fleet of sailing dinghies (Toppers) had been gathering dust in their boathouse at Hopeman Harbour. James Smith had recently joined the school from Edinburgh to take up the post as head of sailing, and to assist the academic support staff. He kindly took me on the 10-minute drive to the picturesque and quaint little town of Hopeman. Smith is a highly qualified sailing instructor of international standard, and the school had brought him in to pick up the pursuit after the previous master in charge had left. The ratio for sailing is very low, as he can currently only take six children on board at a time. His job at present is to train up four young staff members to assist him. We discussed the importance of succession planning in schools that invest in outdoor pursuits, and the safety that is essential by having a low instructor-topupil ratio.

Rigorous qualification

I was interested to find out more about qualifications the Gordonstoun outdoor education staff are required to hold. The industry has become so professional that instructors have specialised in specific disciplines. No longer are outdoor schools looking for general all-round enthusiasts. Certification/accreditation is highly regulated and a prerequisite to taking children outdoors. The director of outdoor education is Ibrahim Parks, a local Scottish man brought up in the area. Realising the importance of being certified, Parks is working on a scheme whereby children leaving the school in their final year can get certification for pursuits such as kayaking and mountain biking. They could then go on to incorporate these qualifications into careers.

Toughing it (and loving it) in the wet

Expeditions at Gordonstoun are led by staff and freelance instructors who have mountain leader qualifications. A Grade 8 expedition had just arrived back and the Grade 9s were heading out as I arrived. The Grade 8s had just spent four days out in the Cairngorm Hills in atrocious weather. It rained solidly for three days. They were very well kitted out, but they all got wet. Luckily, their sleeping bags remained dry throughout. To keep the children busy, the staff required them to hike for long enough each day so that they got to their overnight camp spot late in the evening. Cooking their own dehydrated food – expensive but essential in this climate – the children were guaranteed a good, hot, nutritious meal cooked over their Trangia methylated spirit stoves. They were also constantly kept busy with little tasks such as skipping stones, or balancing rocks on the back of hands while walking on uneven ground. They try to do something in nature that is not just hiking. One staff member described how he tells the young students about the carnivorous plants, which always seems to capture their imagination.16 Back at Gordonstoun, I logged on to a web page that displayed the whereabouts of all the groups on expedition using SPOT, a satellite communication and tracking device to monitor all activity.

Creating aware adults

The older the children get, the more competent they become, so that by Grade 11, they are proficient enough so that staff need only monitor them at a distance. Leadership opportunities present themselves when these children have been at the school for several years and become leaders to train new children who may have just arrived.

This is an extract from a report by Billy Teeton. He also visited Rugby School, Princethorpe College, Bryanston School, Dauntseys School, a number of independent outdoor centres and some state schools, including Leighfield Church of England Primary School and Hyde Park State Infant School in inner-city Plymouth, Devon.


1. The ISASA Staff Development Fund considers grant applications from staff at ISASA member schools. Applications can be made for, inter alia, international visitorships to independent schools and African visitorships to independent schools in Africa. See:

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6. See: attachment_data/file/498944/mene-childrens-report-years-1-2.pdf

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10. See: iayp/

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15. Under Nicolae Ceaușescu, tens of thousands of Romanian children were mistreated by the regime’s inhumane network of juvenile internment institutions. The legacy remains. See: 2019/dec/15/romania-orphanage-child-abusers-may-face-justice-30-years-on

16. See:

Category: Autumn 2020

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