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Interview: John May, secretary-general, Duke of Edinburgh’s International Awards

11 December 2020

‘The Award forces you to try stuff that you might not choose to do’

My role is to be a public face of the award internationally, helping policy-makers and business leaders to recognise the importance of the skills, behaviours, and attitudes that it develops.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award has been going for over 60 years, and we’re looking to celebrate this incredible gift next year when the Duke will be 100. He created it with John Hunt, the manager of the successful climb of Everest, and his old headmaster, back in 1956. We hope to raise funds globally to help young people who can’t easily take part, because we know it’s helped so many find their purpose, passion, and place in the world.

My sales pitch is pretty simple and direct: academic education is important, but that’s only half the story. Co-curricular activities build character, resilience, and values. The Duke of Edinburgh described the award as a “do-it-yourself growing-up kit”.

It’s not just the expedition: It’s about physical fitness, developing a skill — driving, keeping bees, playing an instrument — and voluntary service. That’s the piece which most resonates afterwards, and that’s where the values come through. It’s not religious, but it’s often a way for people to live out their faith.

It balances your life. It forces you to try stuff that you might not choose to do. Getting recognition is really appreciated, and it’s lovely that employers recognise it too.

A million young people in more than 130 countries at any one time are involved, and the framework is identical wherever they are. Our fastest-growing region is sub-Saharan Africa.

I have an office in Westminster, with a team of about 40 colleagues. There’s also a satellite office in Nairobi and about 70 other countries. In some countries, the award’s known by a different name. In South Africa, it’s the President’s Award for Youth Empowerment, in honour of its first patron, President Mandela.

My office should really be in Heathrow Terminal 5 — but, of course, I’ve been Zooming from home for the past few months.

I became a Scout when I was 11, and, except for a small gap between the age of 15 and 18, I’ve been in the movement ever since. I did my D of E Gold Award through Scouting at university. It helped me discover so much about myself.

I had no idea that I’d end up helping to lead its work around the world, but every time I fasten that little gold badge on to my lapel, I think back to the decisions it helped me make as a young adult. I wasn’t good at sport — I’m dyspraxic — but being a Scout allowed me to get into the outdoors, discover hobbies, and begin the adventure of volunteering.

I became a Cub leader in inner-city Bristol when I was 18, originally to do the volunteering section of my D of E. I really enjoyed working with children and young people; so I did teacher-training.

I got involved with international Scouting, and went to several world jamborees as a leader — massive camps for Scouts from all over the world. The last was last year in the US for over 40,000 participants.

International Scouting introduced me to UNICEF. I’ve worked with refugee communities, trained teachers and youth leaders, and helped develop child-immunisation campaigns for young people to implement in their own communities.

As a national trustee of the UK Scout Association, I’m very proud to have helped change the culture to one of acceptance and celebration of diversity, including LGBT+ people. I ended up becoming vice-chair of World Scouting for three years.

Scouting is one of the award’s largest operators worldwide. They don’t compete, they complement each other perfectly.

The award is available to every young person between 14 and 24, whether they are part of a youth organisation, at school or not, in prestigious settings and the slums of mega-cities. It’s not a membership organisation; so you don’t join the award, you do it: as a Scout, at school, in your youth club, or church group.

Each participant creates their own programme. The activities may look a bit different from country to country, but, often, they’re remarkably similar. I’ve heard trombones being played in a school in Nairobi, the favelas of Rio, a prison in South Africa, and in a Girl Guide company in the foothills of the Himalayas, as well as at my local secondary school, in Oxfordshire.

There is trust in the brand that allows young offenders, or girls in more protective cultures, to undertake expeditions. We’ve never had a young offender abscond, which is amazing. I think there’s something about the values that transcend one’s individual situation.

Never make assumptions. In Cape Town, I asked 14-year-old prisoners about skills they’d developed: baking, motorcycle mechanics, metalwork, woodwork. . . One lad said: “I show you, sir.” And he sang “Nessun dorma” in perfect Italian and a fine tenor voice.

We’ve all been amazed by the resilience of young people during the pandemic, and the way they’ve supported others, though they’ll experience the greatest negative impact. Our participants are learning to lead, keeping active, gaining new skills, and supporting their communities — all while locked down, isolated, or with fundamental changes to their everyday lives. With support, they’ll be ready, mentally, and physically healthy, with resilience, communication, and problem-solving skills, and adaptability.

Some examples: Kingsley, in China, is passionate about writing and performing music; he’s playing music for Covid-19 patients in hospital. Lauren, in New Zealand, was reading for over two years to Shirley, who’s blind — now, she’s reading to her over the phone. Amiteshwar, from Chennai, India, wanted to help the daily-wage workers: he raised funds for 15 families for three months. He’d hoped to raise INR135,000 (£1377), but ended up raising INR244,800 (£2492) in just 14 days.

The award helps young offenders build their self-esteem and develop skills to help them once they leave prison. If the risk is minimal, they can do their activities outside, including the expedition. If not, they camp inside the prison grounds.

Being outdoors helps your mental well-being as well as physical fitness. Nothing beats being with a group of friends, discovering the outdoors. It doesn’t have to be in wild country, necessarily.

We need to help young people learn how to manage risk. If we regulate it away, they’ll never learn. The expedition and other outdoor adventure activities allow young people to practise making decisions — and cope with the consequences — while being taught to follow appropriate safety regulations. If safety is being compromised, the supervising adult steps in and resets the boundaries, but it’s seldom necessary, because young people are properly trained before setting out. And, while they might believe they’re miles from the nearest adult, they’re actually being closely supervised.

My advice to the Church is to be unapologetic about making safeguarding overt, robust, and non-negotiable.

I enjoyed an idyllic Famous Five childhood in rural Gloucestershire: sent out into the fields to play with friends, armed only with a packet of sandwiches, some chocolate cake, ginger beer, and the order not to come home till dark. My brother and I were lucky to have a mum who cared about us greatly, but didn’t overprotect us.

Home, now, is in a beautiful Oxfordshire village. Lockdown allowed me to discover the countryside around me, and I’ve just adopted a cat — or it’s adopted me. It has me completely under its control.

My first sense of God was as a chorister, singing in a candle-lit cathedral, and feeling the awe, wonder, and inner peace of getting close to God. I’m not a regular churchgoer, now, but I still recognise moments of quiet, often in the most unlikely places, when God is with me.

I like the sound of rain on my roof. No, not on a tent. Honestly, I now prefer hotels to camping.

It would be fun to spend a few hours in a church with Robert Baden-Powell. I’d love to ask him about his journey from wanting to equip the British Empire with compliant young men to creating a worldwide peace movement. I’d love to get his take on modern youth work, our commitment to diversity, global development, and social justice. I hope he’d approve.


John May was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. dofe.org

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