How the Neoliberal Climate is Re-Shaping the Duke of Edinburgh Award

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Culture and policy, Education

John Weinstock is a local authority youth worker. Ioannis Costas Batlle is a Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Bath.

The Duke of Edinburgh Award (DofE) – a personal development scheme for young people aged 13 to 25 – has played a significant role in the UK since its inception in 1959. Whilst the DofE’s prominence remains, what is changing is how the scheme operates. Like many other charities however, the DofE is gradually succumbing to neoliberal pressures; pressures which emphasise accountability and meeting key performance indicators.

The DofE personal development scheme is a progressive award allowing 13-25 year olds to move from Bronze level, through Silver and onto the Gold award. The award comprises of four sections:

  • Volunteering; whereby participants have to give something back to their community.
  • Skills; such as participants learning or practicing a skill or hobby.
  • Expedition; where small teams of participants undertake an unaccompanied, self-sufficient camping expedition of a variable duration: two days and one night at Bronze, three days and two nights at Silver, and four days and three nights at Gold.
  • Physical; involving participants taking part in a sport or some other physical activity.

These sections, other than the expedition, have to be undertaken for a minimum of an hour a week for at least three months (for a Bronze award), and increase to 12 months at Gold. Completion of the Gold Award also requires an additional residential section. This residential entails participants spending five days undertaking a common endeavour alongside other young people they previously did not know.

Established in 1959 by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh Award was deeply influenced by the ideas of Kurt Hahn (1886 – 1974), who is probably best known for the educational philosophy he put into practice at Gordonstoun public school, Outward Bound, the Atlantic Colleges, as well as in Duke of Edinburgh’s Award itself. The DofE scheme has grown to become extremely well recognised and respected, to the point that in the 2017/18 annual review, Lord Kirkham (Chair of Trustees, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award) stated that:

"We really are the world’s leading achievement award for young people." (Duke of Edinburgh, 2018a)

In the same annual review (Duke of Edinburgh, 2018a), Lord Kirkham further indicated the number of young people the scheme supported in 2017/18:

The primary aim of our charity is to support as many young people as possible to achieve the benefits of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. This year 142,961 achieved their Bronze, Silver or Gold Award, an increase of 7.2% over the previous year.’’

Given Lord Kirkham’s characterisation of DofE as ‘world leading’ and the charity’s aim of reaching as many young people as possible, the scheme has set itself the target of increasing the amount of people who start the award. The DofE aims to reach “350,000 per annum by 2020/2021” and a completions target “rising to 210,000 per annum by 2020/21 representing around 60% of Awards started’’ (Duke of Edinburgh, 2018b).

For DofE to be so popular and to maintain this level of growth there must be tangible benefits for the young people who participate in the programme. DofE state that, by taking part in the Award,

You’ll build confidence, resilience, skills for work and friendship groups. And you’ll have a brilliant time doing it. Looking forward, the DofE can help you carve out a better future. Colleges, universities and employers regard a DofE highly so it will help to open the right doors for you.’’ (Duke of Edinburgh, 2018c)

In sum, there are many young people reaping a great deal of benefit from the DofE. Equally, it is unsurprising DofE wish to keep growing so that even more young people can access the advantages the award offers. Despite these positives, we need to be attentive at the costs associated with the rapid growth the charity is aiming for.

John Weinstock – a local youth worker who has been involved with the DofE scheme for more than 20 years - has noticed more recently how the culture of DofE has evolved. The focus has moved from being a flexible person-centred award (designed to meet the needs of the participants and the centres that use the award) to one driven by ‘key performance indicators’ and prioritising the needs of the DofE organisation itself. There is now a clear and major emphasis on targets, an overriding demand to get more young people to sign up with DofE, and expectations for more young people to complete their award as quickly as possible.

This change in the culture of the DofE started to cause John feelings of uncertainty:

I spoke to colleagues and some of them were definitely feeling pressurised and, in some cases, undervalued. But it was hard to argue that the aim of getting more young people into DofE was not a good thing. So, until recently, I was just keeping quiet, thinking that it was perhaps just me feeling that there was something wrong, that I was just looking back to the ‘good old days’, not being willing to embrace change and progress…

These feelings of uncertainty were not unfounded – quite the contrary. Research shows that charities, including the DofE, are changing. They are having to re-invent themselves into ‘businesses’ that can compete against each other for funds in what is an increasingly barren funding landscape. This transformation into ‘businesses’, or rather, ‘quasi-businesses’ (organisations that are not businesses yet operate as such) is a consequence of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism forcefully nudges all areas of society – education, health, charities – to function like businesses. This, in turn, theoretically means all charities can compete for funds on a level-playing field, whereby the ‘best’ charities doing the ‘best’ work will secure funds, and those which are ‘worse’ receive less money. As such, it is unsurprising the DofE scheme has become concerned with targets, namely numerical targets. This is a key hallmark of charities transforming into businesses; the need to demonstrate efficiency and accountability through quantitative indicators.

This transformation is not one many charities want; it is one they reluctantly accept. There is less and less funding at a time when charities and other similar providers are arguably offering more services. This is another consequence of the neoliberal climate: whilst the state ‘rolls back’ services for the population, people’s needs still have to be met. Charities are increasingly stepping in to fill this void, but they can only do this if they have sufficient funds. Given the current financial landscape offers fewer funding opportunities, competition becomes fiercer. This means charities must play the ‘neoliberal game’ by talking and acting like businesses. The cost of not playing this game is high: no money equals not being able to meet people’s needs; there are “funded sheep” and “unfunded goats”.

What is so wrong with charities becoming businesses, or charities prioritising efficiency and target setting? Practitioners and researchers alike have pondered this question, and research has shown several problems. Firstly, measuring the success of a charity using pre-defined targets as a yardstick promotes a ‘bums-on-seats’ approach. Instead of quality, charities are nudged into prioritising quantity. This results in helping young people whose needs are easier to address than those who have more complex, long-term problems. After all, it is easier to pick low-hanging fruit.

Secondly, by having to transform themselves into businesses, charities (without wanting to or necessarily being aware) shift their priority from ‘meeting young people’s needs’ to ‘ensuring the charity’s survival’. When designing programmes to help young people, their starting point or full attention is rarely ‘what are the children’s needs?’; instead, they are forced to shoe-horn the children’s needs into a programme that can deliver tangible, quantifiable outputs. This is a subtle, but significant difference. For instance, some children require programmes where caring adults just sit and listen to them. This is substantially harder to measure and ‘sell’ in comparison to programmes that aim to instil more quantifiable life skills such as “leadership” or “teamwork”.

In short, charities and those linked to them (like John) are caught in a ‘neoliberal web’ in which they are increasingly having to re-shape the type of support they offer young people. Organisations like DofE are concerned with accountability and key performance indicators as barometers of the quality of their work – a problematic development as charities prioritise quantifiable metrics of success, ahead of young people’s needs. Unfortunately, this is not a space charities want to inhabit; put bluntly, they are proverbially stuck between a rock and a hard place. Whilst it makes sense for businesses to function like businesses, applying the business model to charities does more harm than good.

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Culture and policy, Education


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