The coronavirus has put young people’s lives on hold – and its longer-term impact threatens their future education and employment opportunities.

It’s affected their mental health. And, for some, it’s heightened inequalities that jeopardise both their short- and long-term prospects.

The DofE can help young people recover and rebuild. But the need for this intervention is greatest for disadvantaged young people, many of whom have been hardest hit by the pandemic’s effects.

For young people living in poverty, those with special educational needs and disabilities, and those who are marginalised and at risk, the DofE is an accessible development tool, with low- or no-cost activities that can be done from home or in the community.

And, when they achieve, they gain a respected and internationally-recognised Award that can help level the playing field.

Here are some pre-pandemic examples from across the UK, showing how the DofE can be offered to students with additional needs and those who face barriers to participation.

Greenhill Alternative Learning Campus, Dudley

Greenhill group shot in a tent

Staff at Greenhill Alternative Learning Campus wanted to deliver the DofE to expand the opportunities available to their pupils, who have often been permanently excluded from school and have been unable to take part in adventurous or residential activities.

As DofE Manager Chris Bennett says, doing their DofE has taken participants out of their normal environment and broadened their horizons.

“Staff who are involved in supporting DofE programmes here at Greenhill ALC report an increased level of resilience, confidence and self-esteem in almost all participants. The rapport and positive working relationships that evolve between students and staff are second to none.”

Attendance among some pupils has improved dramatically since Greenhill began running the DofE, and pupils have now been entered for their GCSEs.

Participant Heaven says: “By achieving my Bronze DofE, I have gained more trust. Before I got permanently excluded in my old school, they wouldn’t allow me to go on trips, let alone stay overnight.

“I have gained trust in the adults I’m working with and trust them to care for me.”

High Grange School, Derby

High Grange School is a multi-disciplinary school which supports young people who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It uses best practice and autism-friendly strategies to help reduce students’ stress and anxieties.

Nicola Foyle set up the DofE at High Grange in 2014, having achieved her Gold Award in 2006.

She says: “All students at our school have high-functioning autism, often alongside other diagnoses. A lot of our students have never spent time away from home and struggle with social interaction and communications skills.

“I would recommend the DofE because of the opportunities it gives to students – even more so to those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). DofE programmes are balanced and challenging, with each student able to choose their activities and goals. The Expedition section is always the hardest for our students, but it remains the one that they get the most out of.”

High Grange pupil Tobias was one of the first to start his DofE, and has since achieved his Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards.

He says: “Before beginning my DofE, I was not a very confident person and I would have much rather stayed within my own secluded barriers.

“I have gained a vast amount of life experience from doing my DofE and it has played a valuable role in my life as a way to increase my confidence. I have gained a massive level of independence from this that I would not have got otherwise.”

Auchenharvie Academy, North Ayrshire

Auchenharvie Academy group shot on expedition

Auchenharvie Academy set up a DofE group specifically for male students who face disadvantage, with the aim of supporting them to develop skills and attributes that would equip them for positive futures.

Deputy headteacher Linda Davis says: “We see the impact of the DofE in the school. They are coming in with more maturity and it’s got a lot to do with what the DofE gives them.

“Many are boys who didn’t want to be in class at all, but now attend regularly. It builds up their resilience. They’re giving back more than we ever imagined.”

As part of their DofE programmes, participants take up vocational learning, including stone masonry, woodwork, fire-fighting skills, first aid and cooking.

For some participants, their DofE Award may be the only certificate they achieve in school – and for many it can be the stepping stone they need towards further education or work. Many have gone onto college or university – and one went on to become the Academy’s deputy head boy.

Gold participant David says: “The DofE was the best thing that could have happened to me in school. It helped me think about the future.”

Plymouth School of Creative Arts

Plymouth School of Creative Arts began delivering the DofE in 2017 – including offering programmes to students in its Alternative Curriculum group.

DofE Manager Chris Jones reports that young people who refused to engage at the start of the school year became actively involved thanks to their DofE.

“It’s been amazing to see the impact on these students. Some of the young people in this group have really shone and they have developed their leadership skills, their confidence and their ability and willingness to engage with people around them.

“Young people who at the start of the year refused to be part of a group and sit with other students have now organised, as a team, a charity abseil event. Others are leading sports activities for primary school kids.

“It has really helped their confidence, ability to start engaging with other young people in their peer group and even outside their peer group.”

Ysgol Bro Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire

Ysgol Bro Dinefwr has two learning resources for pupils with severe and complex needs, and recently offered a group of students from its specialist resource base the opportunity to do their Bronze DofE.

Although initially unsure whether the DofE was for them, the students decided to embark on a ‘Donkey DofE’, supported by their school-based youth worker.

They incorporated learning about, and caring for, animals into their activities to build their confidence, volunteering at an animal-assisted therapy centre and following a programme of weekly animal care sessions for their Skills section. For their expedition, the group travelled with two donkeys, caring for and prioritising their welfare throughout the journey.

The Bronze participants reported an increase in their confidence and self-esteem as a result of doing their DofE – and their attendance at school has also improved as a result.

South Eastern Regional College, Northern Ireland

South Eastern Regional College (SERC)

South Eastern Regional College (SERC) provides Skills for Life and Job Clubs programmes at four of its campuses.

The Skills for Life programme is designed to develop employability and personal development skills and improve literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, while the Job Club programme – for students with moderate to severe special educational needs – provides students with skills to support them in employment and develops their personal skills.

Many students have one or more barriers to learning, including emotional, behavioural, learning, cultural or medical difficulties, and require specific support to allow them to progress.

SERC decided to offer the DofE alongside these courses as they felt it would be a great way to meet the course aspirations and prepare students for the future. The college began running programmes in 2018/19.

The first intake of Bronze participants had a range of learning and physical difficulties, including cerebral palsy, ASD, ADHD and mental health issues. In June 2019, the college’s first Bronze expeditions took place.

Michelle Hickland, Deputy Head of School and DofE Manager, says: “An added challenge was that this was the first time most of the group had ever slept away from home or been away from family for more than a day. Walking any distance can be difficult for these young people, but they all persevered.”

Leaders report that students who did their DofE have benefitted from increased self-confidence and self-reliance, team-working and decision-making skills and a sense of responsibility and achievement.

Bishop Young Church of England Academy, Leeds

When headteacher Paul Cooper took up his post at Bishop Young Academy in 2017, the Department for Education had described it as the most broken school in the country. Trust had disintegrated between students and staff, and between staff and senior staff.

Paul was their fifth headteacher in two years. He says: “We changed the curriculum straight away and introduced much more enrichment to focus on soft skills development – and the DofE is a major part of that.”

Last year – with the support of their DofE Operations Officer – the school gave 145 pupils the chance to do their DofE.

Paul says: “Two years down the line, students feel overwhelmingly safe in the school, they feel like they have opportunities outside of the curriculum and they value the support that they get from staff. In fact, 30 students were interviewed during a recent inspection and six mentioned the value of the DofE in helping them on that journey.”

DofE Leader Keith says: “We’ve got to help the kids in this school because they’re brilliant, but they don’t know it. It is hard to express in words how much I see the kids get from their DofE – it makes me well up.

“The school gets more resilient learners. I just love being out there with them and seeing them grow.”

Brent Knoll School, London

Brent Knoll group shot at a campsite

Brent Knoll School in Lewisham is a special school for pupils with complex social, communication and interaction difficulties, including autism.

Brent Knoll offers Key Stage 4 pupils the chance to do both their Bronze and Silver DofE – and 2018/19 saw their largest DofE group yet. Ninety-three per cent of students taking part were eligible for the Pupil Premium Grant.

Headteacher Andy Taylor says: “The participation in the DofE has had enormous benefit on the young people here at school. There has been measurable impact on their developing independence, self-esteem and confidence.

“Taking part in activities that are specifically designed to develop key skills and make them think about their place in the community has led to an increased awareness of the importance of citizenship and prepares them for life in the community after school. It encourages them to be ‘the best they can be’.”

One participant’s foster carer says: “He speaks highly of the experiences he enjoyed whilst completing his Bronze DofE. It has helped him enormously with his confidence, social interaction and independence.

“He is so enthusiastic and would love to achieve his Silver moving forward. This opportunity would provide much focus for him right now and I am sure he will thrive even further.”