Youth at the forefront: HRH Duke of Edinburgh and Progressive Schools in Exile

Updated: Apr 17

by Dr Jana Buresova



Ruth Danson and friends in the garden of Bunce Court School, 1939

Whilst our school days may not be the most memorable ones, the recent death of HRH Duke of Edinburgh and reports prior to his funeral on 17 April, have nevertheless caused some people to reappraise them.


Media coverage of the Duke’s life in exile and his legacy, focused considerably on his interest in young people – notably their personal development via education and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. Today’s cool students, however, might not relish cold baths and open windows on snowy nights, nor agree on what constitutes a ‘progressive’ school.


Yet when German educationalist Kurt Hahn founded Gordonstoun, a progressive school in Scotland in 1934, he envisioned a broad education that fostered self-reliance, leadership and resilience, as well as individual interests and a sense of service. A refugee from Fascism, he was not alone in applying his particular philosophy preceding and during WWII, and on.


Other German teachers and educators had likewise fled to Britain on political grounds and/or because they were Jewish, founding boarding schools based on the German progressive educational reform system. Like Gordonstoun, Hildegard Feidel-Mertz, observes, they were originally opened for refugee children, to support those ‘uprooted and confused…as they developed a new and complex identity and came to terms with an alien environment’.


For the many Kindertransport children too, who arrived in 1939 usually unable to speak English initially (and discouraged from speaking German in public during WWII), such schools proved invaluable in aiding the necessary transition, in addition to the preservation of a religious and cultural heritage frequently lost in other circumstances.


Anna Essinger, for instance, had effectively transferred her school from Germany to Kent in 1933, naming it the County Home School, New Herrlingen, which became Bunce Court School from 1936 to its closure in 1948. Pupils included Refugee Voices (RV) interviewees Leslie Brent who came on the Kindertransport, Ruth Danson, and Charlotte Stenham.


When Bruno and Alma Schindler established Regent’s Park School in London in 1933, they were all too aware that some pupils were unlikely to ever see their parents again. Hence, they aimed to ‘encourage independent thinking, an ability to act independently and a feeling that, despite adversity, it was possible for all to achieve the kind of life and standard of living from which most of the children had come’. Judaism being a key element, Friday evenings were devoted to Judaism and Jewish history. RV interviewees Margarete Hinrichson and composer Joseph Horovitz were both pre-war émigrés; ‘My father put me into a fantastic establishment called Regent's Park School’, he recalled.


Stoatley Rough School in Surrey was founded in 1934 by Hilde Lion, a social scientist known for her involvement in the women’s movement. Her school was attended by Czechoslovak future poet, Gerda Mayer, whose family had fled from Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) following Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland region in 1938. RV interviewees Henry Ebner and Hannah Wurzburger were fellow pupils. ‘Hannah felt that “she had landed” and that she was among people who were interested in her’.


Later, in 1938, when Austria was annexed to Germany, Karl Konig had fled and settled in Aberdeen. Already interested in anthroposophy, he used his expertise as a doctor and remedial educator to found Camp Hill House. Feidel-Mertz described it as ‘an educational workshop for the integration of handicapped and non-handicapped children, which had a far-reaching effect’.

Also in 1938, Mina Specht, another social reform educator, transferred her school from Denmark to Wales, then to Butcombe Court near Bristol. Her desire to provide ‘education for confidence’ was temporarily thwarted in 1940 when she was interned on the Isle of Man, but she played a major role in establishing a school for the children (aged up to sixteen), interned with their respective mothers.


Well before the end of WWII, attention was turning towards the prospect of repatriation, and the need to prepare for it. Many refugee children staying in foster homes and attending British schools had partially or totally forgotten their mother tongue and culture. To remedy this, the Free German Cultural Alliance (Freie Deutsche Kulturbund) was instrumental in founding Theydon Bois School near London, for German and Austrian children.


The (formerly Czechoslovak) Government in Exile in London had similar concerns. It consequently opened its own Czechoslovak State Boarding Schools, commencing in 1941 with Hinton Hall, in Shropshire. A separate primary/junior section was opened in 1942 at Maesfen Hall, in Malpas, Cheshire, then in autumn 1943 the gymnasium (high school) section for pupils aged eleven‒eighteen, moved from Hinton Hall to the larger erstwhile Abernant Lake Hotel in Wales.


President Edvard Benes called for all Czechoslovak children to attend the schools, believing them to be in the children’s best interests, and to enhance their future prospects in the homeland. While many children were glad to be there, some ran away. Underpinning the intense teaching in Czech and patriotic cultural observance, the schools’ ethos regarding character-building was similar to Hahn’s.


Former pupils recounted that there was ‘No molly-coddling’. ‘We small children were sent running in relays naked to our evening bath which always ended with a jug of cold water being poured over us. We were encouraged with the words, “Nahy a tuhy” (naked and tough)’. Older pupils began each day with gymnastics – keep fit exercises outdoors following the patriotic Sokol Movement’s principle of ‘a strong mind in a sound body’. They also had to do their own laundry, ironing and mending, and help with washing up and drying dishes.


Today, this may seem harsh, but children who attended such schools did not always recognize or appreciate the fact that in reality they were quite privileged, with shared backgrounds and experiences, in contrast to the majority of their contemporaries attending British state schools as obvious ‘outsiders’. Fees were often subsidized or paid by a charity on a child’s behalf….


In the case of second and third generations – British-born children and grandchildren of former refugees and concentration or forced labour camp survivors – cultural backgrounds and influences generally arise from the home and religious entities, so may be quite distinct from their formal education and leisure activities. Nonetheless, it is within these latter environments that the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award youth scheme is mostly facilitated. Ostensibly, it has no connection with progressive schools, but Hahn and his educational philosophy inspired its inception in 1956.


Importantly, neither public school nor academic attainment is a prerequisite for participation in the youth scheme; its objective remains the development of the individual, to the present day. It comprises four core sections to be successfully completed: volunteering, physical, skills, and expedition, at Bronze, Silver and Gold levels. Thousands of young people have ‘grown’ and excelled through their participation in the scheme; numerous proud refugee parents have accompanied their son/daughter to Buckingham Palace to receive the Gold Award from Prince Philip, with a sense of achievement on all sides.


Significantly, although Hahn’s philosophy and that of like-minded educationalists reflect a particular era and ideals, his ideas are not forgotten. Arguments about informal tests, individual projects and personal progress vs. the emphasis on competitive examinations – at the cost of a broader approach and the development of a ‘rounded’ person and citizen – resonate and remain both relevant and controversial.


This tension is manifestly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and their detrimental impact on education. Thus, in endeavouring to overcome challenges presented by our current situation, the strength of character, resolve and service to others fostered by Hahn, progressive educationalists and the Duke Edinburgh’s Award, are as vital as ever.



Further Reading

AJR Refugee Voices interviews:

<https://www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/intervieweeexperiences/Bunce-Court-School>

https://www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/intervieweeexperiences/Regent's-Park-School-%2F-Schindler-School

<https://www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/intervieweeexperiences/Stoatley-Rough-School>