Boarding as preparation for twenty-first century life


by Lisa Kerr, Principal of Gordonstoun

2020 really pushed us to our limits, and perhaps even beyond. When you were desperately trying to keep your business afloat or tearing your hair out at ever-changing social and travel restrictions, I wonder, what skills did you call upon? I suspect your strength of character and resilience were just as important as your intellectual knowledge. We all had to dig deep.


UK boarding schools are renowned for the standard of education they provide, but the events of 2020 demonstrated the importance of the broad range of skills we teach. The word ‘character education’ has become over-used but Gordonstoun was a true pioneer in this regard. The Gordonstoun motto, ‘Plus est en vous’ or ’There is more in you’, is as relevant today as it was when the visionary educationalist, Dr Kurt Hahn, founded the school in 1934. 

Hahn’s vision was that young people needed to be challenged in order to develop the skills they would need for life, such as resilience, responsibility and compassion. Over the years this has been inaccurately depicted as a tough regime of cross-country running and cold showers. But the reality is that pupils learn teamwork on our ocean-going sail training vessel, develop resilience on expeditions into the Highlands and grow a strong sense of service to the community by volunteering to be lifeguards or members of the Coastguard. 

UK boarding schools offer opportunities that many children can only dream of. And they develop skills which they can draw upon as they face life’s ups and downs.   

Young people need to understand that life is not plain sailing. How many of us faltered in our response when faced with the enormous challenges of the coronavirus pandemic? But failing at one aspect of life does not make you a failure. Presenting young people with challenges helps them learn that moments of weakness are normal and that they need to support each other to reach the best outcome. Our Head of Senior School, who is a member of our volunteer Fire Service, works alongside pupils responding to emergency calls and recalls how, on several occasions, pupils have kept him going through a long night pumping flood water out of homes or fighting hill fires. He has the benefit of experience but they have youthful energy and their joint skills make a winning combination. 

The lessons learned during these experiences outside the classroom are invaluable. Boarding schools are experts in raising children and they understand that a good all-round education pays dividends for the rest of someone’s life. 

The importance of challenge

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh recognised the importance of challenge. After his time at Gordonstoun, he first considered the idea of a national programme to support young people’s development in 1954 at the request of Kurt Hahn. The Gordonstoun School award was eventually developed into the Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award and it now gives hundreds of thousands of children around the world an opportunity to take on life-changing challenges. 

The pandemic has shown us that we can take nothing for granted – that everything we rely upon can be turned upside down in a heartbeat. Our young people are also facing an online world where they need to navigate the positives and pitfalls of social media. Boarding schools are receiving increasing numbers of inquiries from parents who want their children to escape from the pressures of the ‘always on’ culture and have a ‘real childhood’. As well as providing real rather than virtual experiences, boarding schools show young people how to control their digital lives rather than letting their digital lives control them.  

I can tell you from personal experience that, when you are the crew of a sailing boat in the middle of a gale on the West Coast of Scotland, there is no time to update your profile and little point in worrying about your appearance! The deep and meaningful friendships made during these experiences last a lifetime, not just for the duration of a few ‘likes’.

We look forward  to a future with a COVID-19 vaccine but there will always be tests of character, whether personal or professional. The pandemic has shown us that society needs leaders who are not only confident but also resilient and compassionate. If a disproportionate number of tomorrow’s influential individuals come from a boarding school background, it will be because we know how to bring out the best in each and every child, equipping them with the skills to navigate an uncertain world.

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