How Gordonstoun School Shaped Prince Charles and His Career

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On May 1, 1962, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, piloted the plane that flew 13-year-old Prince Charles to RAF Lossiemouth. Prince Philip then drove his son half a mile to Gordonstoun School, Moray, the school that he had attended and loved, for the Prince of Wales to begin his secondary education.

This was the beginning of a unique education that would shape much of Prince Charles’ adult life. Not only was he the first Prince of Wales to enjoy a school education instead of private tuition, but Gordonstoun introduced him to a broad education, provided the space for him to make friends with pupils from wide-ranging backgrounds, and opened his eyes to adventurous experiences that would influence his future endeavours.

The Philosophy of Gordonstoun’s Founder Dr Kurt Hahn

In 1934, the German Jewish educationalist Dr Kurt Hahn founded Gordonstoun School after having fled the Nazi party in Germany, who had imprisoned him for opposing them. His vision was to educate well-rounded citizens and enrich young people with important life skills and a strong sense of community. Hahn believed that an extensive curriculum would broaden minds and opportunities, helping every child achieve their full potential. Mutual respect, resilience, and trust were the cornerstones of his teaching philosophy.

Hahn’s idea of schooling also embraced the local mountains, sea, fresh air, and adventures. The school’s motto was — and is to this day — “Plus Est En Vous”, which means “There Is More in You”. Hahn’s original vision, philosophy, and motto are as relevant today as when he first introduced them nearly a century ago, at which time he was Prince Philip’s headmaster.

Gordonstoun combines inspiring classroom learning with varied out-of-classroom experiences. Every pupil participates in outdoor education, sail training, team and individual sports, performing arts, and one of Gordonstoun’s nine community services. This way, the school’s close-knit community of diverse pupils discover more about themselves, their strengths, and their ability to thrive at Gordonstoun and in the wider world. It was against this backdrop that a young Prince Charles developed academically and personally, found a love of archaeology and adventure, and ignited a lifelong desire to help alienated and underprivileged youth.

What Prince Charles’ Schooldays Looked Like

Given Gordonstoun’s focus on preparing its pupils for life, not just for exams, Prince Charles had the opportunity to participate in a range of activities beyond the classroom. He was a member of the Debating Society and an active participant in the arts. Aside from singing in the school choir and playing both trumpet and cello, he was an accomplished potter and took lead roles in drama productions. Described as “the best actor in the school”, Prince Charles particularly excelled in his role as Macbeth. He also played the Duke of Exeter in Shakespeare’s Henry V and the Pirate King in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

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Prince Charles also enjoyed regular walking expeditions and sailing excursions in the Highlands. He loved hockey and cricket, and his favourite academic subjects were English, History, French, Latin, and Geography. In his final year at Gordonstoun, he followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the school’s guardian (head boy) after having been the head of his boarding house.

Prince Charles left Gordonstoun in 1967 with strong academic results, including five O levels in English Language, English Literature, History, Latin, and French, and two A levels in History and French.

“I’m glad I went to Gordonstoun,” Prince Charles has said. “It wasn’t the toughness of the place — that’s all much exaggerated by report — it was the general character of the education there… with the emphasis on self-reliance to develop a rounded human being. Gordonstoun developed my willpower and self-control, helped me to discipline myself.”

Service to Alienated and Underprivileged Youth

Prince Charles’ education at Gordonstoun marked the first time that an heir to the British royal throne received an education in an essentially classless society. He rubbed shoulders with boys from working-class families and a variety of backgrounds. Like all Gordonstoun pupils, he also took part in the school’s community service and internationalism projects. These experiences shaped Prince Charles’ lifelong devotion to charitable causes, particularly supporting alienated and underprivileged young people.

Since leaving Gordonstoun, the Prince of Wales has spent decades identifying charitable needs and building initiatives to meet these. Amongst his many charities, he established The Prince’s Trust in 1976 to help those aged 11-30 who face school or unemployment challenges and help them transform their lives. More than 870,000 disadvantaged young people across the UK have received support from the Trust to move into education, training, or work.

Many of Prince Charles’ other charities also work towards supporting young people and education, building communities, and creating a fairer and more sustainable future.

Prince Charles’ Interest in Archaeology

During his time at school, Prince Charles also organised a dig in local cliff caves that held prehistoric relics. This rare experience sparked the Prince of Wales’ interest in the field of archaeology. After leaving Gordonstoun, he studied archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge. This was a unique choice for a future king, who would typically focus on subjects such as constitutional history. Upon graduating, Prince Charles became the first British heir to earn a university degree.

From Gordonstoun Coast Guard to Royal Navy

Gordonstoun upholds the belief that a school should not isolate itself but serve its community. The school provides nine local community and rescue services, including a Coastguard unit. During his time as a pupil, Prince Charles was a member of Gordonstoun’s Coastguard unit, which is integrated with the local H.M. Coastguard. He participated in professional training alongside other pupils to meet real-world Coastguard demands with confidence and resilience. The unit took part in a Coastguard lookout and was on call to respond to emergencies.

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Pupils volunteer for the Coastguard unit to this day, an experience that helps them develop leadership skills, social responsibility, and a sense of compassion. The Coastguard unit experience proved essential to Prince Charles’ career: In 1964, he “signed on” with the Royal Navy — which he later joined — and undertook training in basic navigation, rowing, and sailing at the Portsmouth naval base with the cadet force from Gordonstoun.

Years later, on his first TV broadcast, Prince Charles said: “When I was at school at Gordonstoun, a school in Scotland which has a reputation for being tough — which is quite wrong — I was in a coastguard unit, and I found it extremely exciting and rewarding at the age of 14, 15, or 16 to be given responsibility as a coastguard on your own to do things which potentially were extremely helpful to everybody else.”

Prince Charles’ Personal Growth

From gaining a comprehensive and rigorous education alongside young people from all backgrounds to discovering new interests and enjoying unique and character-building experiences, Prince Charles developed his sense of self tremendously during his time at Gordonstoun.

He reflected on his Gordonstoun experience in his 1975 House of Lords speech, noting that: “I am always astonished by the amount of rot talked about Gordonstoun and the careless use of ancient clichés used to describe it. It was only tough in the sense that it demanded more of you as an individual than most other schools did — mentally or physically. I am lucky in that I believe it taught me a great deal about myself and my abilities and disabilities. It taught me to accept challenges and take the initiative.”

About Gordonstoun

Gordonstoun School offers inspiring curriculums for children and young people aged 4-18. These pupils come from all corners of the UK and beyond: Only one-third of pupils come from Scotland; the other two-thirds come from the wider UK and other countries.

Although Gordonstoun has retained its 17th-century, 150-acre estate, which originally belonged to the Scottish politician and courtier Sir Robert Gordon, it has expanded its traditional curriculums with a selection of modern, forward-facing subjects, which pupils study in the school’s state-of-the-art facilities. The pupils learn in some of the UK’s small teaching groups, and 96% go on to study at a higher level.

Learn more about Gordonstoun School.

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