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Gordonstoun: What true ‘character education’ looks like

A good school can get students into top universities, but few can guarantee a successful life the way Gordonstoun can. It all begins with a character-building education –– an area this institution has been a world leader in for over 80 years.

Within this time, its efforts have racked up many accolades. It is the birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. “A model of best practice,” “outstanding,” and “sector leading,” according to HM Inspectors. Most recently, the winner of “Best Boarding School” at the Independent Schools of the Year awards 2021.

Gordonstoun’s award-racking prestige wasn’t the only attribute that caught Tessa Lumley’s eye on her family’s first visit. She saw a breadth of nature her children would be able to enjoy after years of schooling in bustling London. Free from city-life distractions, here, they would be able to master the arts of sailing at the local harbour, camping in lush forests, or hiking through the Scottish Highlands. “These are experiences I could not provide them,” she says.

Sail, camp and hike, they did. Today, Lumley’s children are unrecognisable. Exposure to our earth’s natural wonders instilled a sense of responsibility in them that urban schooling never could. It wasn’t long until they felt the urge to go further by preserving their surroundings and bettering the lives of those less fortunate –– true testaments to the school’s motto, ‘Plus Est En Vous’ (There Is More In You).

Service to the local community is big here and a key component to the school’s “working week.” All ages have a part to play — however, from Year 11 onwards, students commit to one of the school’s nine services. Stroll campus and you might see them serving as members of the Coastguard or Fire Service alongside rescue service personnel who are ever-ready to respond to real emergencies.

“Considering the wellbeing of others is not necessarily the top priority of a teenager but it is definitely good for them for that reason!” says Lumley. “The result in both my daughters –– who are very different –– was immediate, they have more of a sense of what they are capable of now.”

Teachable moments came with ample clarity for both girls. Gratified, each discovered their passions. One is a drummer in the school’s Pipe Band and the other can now play three musical instruments. Both have competed in different sports all over Scotland. Furthermore, they’ve made enduring friendships with students from various countries and backgrounds. “These connections give them a sense of real global citizenship, perspective and understanding — which is invaluable,” she says.

These are the outcomes a Gordonstoun education achieves. Its unique ethos emphasises the importance of every learner fulfilling their academic potential while developing a suite of life skills outside the classroom. In fact, the wilderness expeditions that spurred the development of the Lumley girls are a key part of Gordonstoun’s signature curriculum.  Located on the Moray Coast in the North of Scotland, the school makes the perfect base for such excursions and other enriching activities.

Joshua T. agrees. As a first-time boarder, he faced his own set of challenges; however, each disappeared the second his transformation began. Today, he’s certain university life can be mastered just as simply. Ask him to put a finger on which opportunity contributed to his growth the most and he’ll tell you it’s impossible. There have been too many.

“I don’t think I could pick a favourite moment from the vast array of things I’ve done here from expeditions to being a coast guard, morning hymns to cross country running in typical Scottish weather, and being guardian to quiet evenings in with great friends,” he explains.

“The last two years have undoubtedly been the busiest years of my life, but I’ve loved every minute and have made some incredible memories along the way. And here I am now, with only three weeks left of my Gordonstoun career and yet still so much to do.”

It’s clear a healthy balance of excitement and tranquility often comes with the confidence to excel. Pairing personalised delivery alongside English GCSE and A Level curricula helps too. With a staff to pupil ratio of one-to-seven, every learner’s progress is carefully overseen by their respective tutors. When students matriculate to esteemed institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Central St. Martins, MIT, or the Northern School of Music –– much like the pupils before them –– it’s a collective win that gets everyone on their feet.

Graduate Mayon W’s acceptance letter to the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Aerospace Engineering programme was cause for celebration as well. He cannot wait to begin anew across the Atlantic. However, while there’s a lot to look forward to, there is too much to miss about the school that eventually became his second home.

“I would happily spend another year here!” he enthuses. “But, to quote the crème de la crème of clichés, change is the only constant, so farewell and good fortune to you Gordonstoun — I know we will meet again.”

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