Gordonstoun School Reveals What School Life Was Like for Prince Philip
Gordonstoun’s principal reflects on the Duke of Edinburgh’s support for the school and how its curriculum has evolved since his school days.
Viewers around the world have tuned in to watch Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ and get a glimpse into Prince Philip’s life at Gordonstoun School. However, there’s much more to Gordonstoun than the limited portrayal the acclaimed television series offers. Gordonstoun isn’t simply a £13,750-per-semester boarding school with royal heritage. Today, the school houses 500 boarders and 100 day students from over 40 countries who excel in several subjects, including internationalism, sociology, and dance. Students even learn how to conduct healthy political debates in Gordonstoun’s Dialogue Society and partake in the school’s Dialogue Symposiums, which no other UK school offers.
Out of ‘The Crown’s’ numerous episodes, many viewers have enjoyed the season-two episode ‘Paterfamilias’, which explores Prince Philip’s grief following his sister’s tragic death. Reflecting on this episode, Gordonstoun’s Principal Lisa Kerr explains the series doesn’t give a wholly accurate insight into Prince Philip’s school experiences.
‘I think Gordonstoun has been very strongly misrepresented in television through the years. And while ‘The Crown’ is a beautiful piece of television, it’s very much a drama, not a documentary. For example […] we see Prince Philip building some gates, and that actually never happened.’
Here, we’ll delve into what life was really like for Prince Philip, how school life has evolved for Gordonstoun students, and how Prince Philip has shaped the school’s ethos.
The Evolution of Gordonstoun Education
Fans of ‘The Crown’ know Gordonstoun placed a strong emphasis on sports during Prince Philip’s school days. However, Kerr notes that students weren’t forced to take cold showers after the morning runs shown in ‘The Crown’. The headmaster of the time, Dr Kurt. Hahn, was a big believer in outdoor learning and helped Prince Philip channel his insecurities by developing his physical strength. Hahn believed students shouldn’t only learn in classroom environments and pushed his students to advance their physical skills.
Since Prince Philip’s school days, Gordonstoun has shifted its focus to accommodate a new generation of subjects. Over the years, the school has modernised its curriculums, which now span well beyond the traditional. Gordonstoun achieves a holistic educational model through its wide-ranging curricular and extra-curricular programmes, dedicated pastoral-care support, small teaching groups and state-of-the-art facilities. These facilities include a dance studio, theatre department, golf course, and sports centre with indoor rock-climbing wall and swimming pool.
Gordonstoun also offers Saturday classes and recreational evening activities. Staff have crafted these to help students nurture friendships and enjoy social events, such as beach bonfires and game nights. On top of this, Gordonstoun runs a summer school, where students can partake in creative sessions, such as jewellery-making classes, as part of the creative arts and technology course.
While some private schools pour their efforts into the single mission of improving student grades, Gordonstoun commits itself to helping students develop all corners of their skillsets: academic, social, emotional, and physical.
Gordonstoun’s History of Sports and Sailing Prowess
Gordonstoun has long boasted a rich history of sporting achievements. Prince Philip himself was a keen sportsman, captain of both the school’s hockey and cricket teams. He was also a Watcher (a precursor to Gordonstoun’s Coastguard service) before he became Guardian (head boy).
When it comes to sports, Gordonstoun is particularly well known for its sailing successes. Sailing has been on the curriculum since the school opened in 1934, when Prince Philip – one of the school’s first ten students – learnt to sail. He immensely enjoyed his adventures in the Moray Firth sea and went on to become a cadet at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Many students have since followed in his footsteps, even sailing to Norway in Gordonstoun’s 80-foot sailboat.
In April, Gordonstoun students and staff honoured Prince Philip with a celebration of his life on the school’s yacht. They met at Hopeman Harbour and sailed the school’s boat, ‘Ocean Spirit’ out to sea, where they laid a memorial wreath. Meanwhile, a lone piper played ‘Flowers of the Forest’. Gordonstoun also released photographs of Prince Philip sailing – along with his school report – in advance of his birthday. The Duke would have turned 100 in June.
Prince Philip’s School Report
Prince Philip’s school report reveals many charming insights into his school days. In one, Hahn recollected an incident where the Duke nearly knocked over a young woman with a pram but offered an ‘irresistible’ apology. In another, he noted that Philip found it ‘ridiculous’ when people asked him for an autograph, once signing himself ‘The Earl of Baldwin’. Hahn also referenced Prince Philip’s ‘meticulous attention to detail’, ‘undefeatable spirit’, and ‘childlike quality of becoming absorbed by whatever he tackled, almost to the point of oblivion’.
Prince Philip’s Relationship With Scotland and Gordonstoun
Scotland became a second home for Prince Philip after he suffered several childhood tragedies: his father was exiled from Greece during a battle, his mother was taken to a psychiatric sanatorium, and he lost his sister in a plane crash. Though Prince Philip faced a difficult childhood, he found much happiness at Gordonstoun School. He also later enjoyed many trips to Scotland with the Queen, particularly at Balmoral, her castle in Royal Deeside.
Prince Philip returned to Gordonstoun many times throughout his life. Not only did he visit Gordonstoun as a parent and grandparent (all three of his sons and two of his grandchildren attended the school), but he also visited to develop the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, to celebrate Gordonstoun’s 80th anniversary, and to spend time with the students. During one of his visits, he famously refused to let staff bring lunch to his table. Instead, he joined pupils to queue for his meal.
The Duke of Edinburgh Award and Prince Philip Gordonstoun Foundation
Prince Philip was one of the first students to take part in Gordonstoun’s Moray Badge – the award that people around the world now know as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Hahn developed the Moray Badge to encourage students to practise outdoor pursuits and support the local community. In 1956, Prince Philip worked with Hahn to modernise and relaunch the certification as the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which young people aged 14–24 now complete in over 140 countries. Prince Philip has personally awarded the Gold certificate to many proud recipients over the last 65 years.
Aside from the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Prince Philip also worked with Gordonstoun to develop the Prince Philip Gordonstoun Foundation. This programme provides funding so students from all backgrounds can attend the prestigious school. Though Prince Philip has now passed, his efforts continue to support Gordonstoun students through this scheme. Over 30 percent of Gordonstoun’s students receive bursary support.
Children of All Talents and Abilities
Though many schools only admit students who have achieved across-the-board academic success, Gordonstoun interviews and welcomes students who thrive in a range of academic, creative, and sporting subjects and who will benefit most from the school’s unique approach. Staff help students flourish in their favourite subjects and build confidence in their other lessons. There’s no expectation for students to join Gordonstoun with fully fledged skills in all subject areas.
‘There’ll be a lot of parents who say, look at our children, they have all A-stars,’ Kerr says. ‘We think children of all abilities and all talents are valuable. We want a wide range of students – the best scientists, the best mathematicians. But we also have students who might struggle in those areas but who are the most wonderful leaders on an expedition or who will be the star of the show in a drama performance.’
Over the last year, Gordonstoun has adapted its classes to offer outdoor lessons and meet COVID-19 legislation. The school is also following the Boarding Schools’ Association’s COVID-safe charter by deep-cleaning indoor spaces and offering isolation spaces for students who show symptoms of COVID-19 or test positive.
About Gordonstoun School
Gordonstoun School’s seventeenth-century campus sits in 200 acres of beautiful Scottish countryside near Elgin. Students enjoy studying in the school’s impressive blend of historic and contemporary facilities, each designed to facilitate the highest level of education. While some students live in Gordonstoun’s seven boarding houses, complete with onsite pastoral staff, others attend in the day only. Students from all backgrounds make the most of the school’s varied, engaging curriculums, learning both in the classroom and in the surrounding Scottish Highlands.
Gordonstoun also runs one of the first and most successful summer school programmes in UK history.
Read more about Gordonstoun School.