Gordonstoun: The school that grew from just two pupils to educating a king

School was founded on principles of Jewish educator who fled from Hitler's Germany

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Founded in 1933, Gordonstoun, a prestigious coeducational school in north-eastern Scotland, is planning to open a branch on Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi. But its history stretches back more than 100 years.

Gordonstoun private school has educated the rich and famous, including Britain's King Charles III.

Its founder, Kurt Hahn, was a Jewish educator who fled Germany to escape persecution by the Nazis.

Hahn was born in Berlin in 1896, and after attending the University of Oxford, went on to open, in 1920, a school at the family castle of Prince Max von Baden, that was based on the exact opposite of Hahn’s own authoritarian and rigid experience as a child.

Hahn devised what he called the “Seven Laws of Salem”, the name of the school derived from salaam and shalom, the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace.

These laws included giving children opportunities for self-discovery, allowing them to deal with the experience of failure and to train the imagination. Significantly for the future, the seventh law was “Free the sons of the wealthy and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege”.

Arrested for publicly speaking out against Hitler in 1933, Hahn fled to Britain, where he set up a new school, taking out a lease on a crumbling Scottish mansion that had belonged to a disgraced (for cheating at cards) aristocrat, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, who had died three years earlier.

For the first academic year, the new Gordonstoun School had just two pupils, with Hahn expecting the venture to run for only a few years as a vindication of his educational methods.

The arrival of a third pupil changed his fortune. Another exile, Prince Philip of Greece, arrived in September 1934 and soon fell under Gordonstoun’s spell. He excelled at sports, becoming captain of cricket and hockey, but also developed an appreciation of community service which he would later use as the basis for his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

After leaving the school in 1939, the prince served in Britain’s Royal Navy during the Second World War, after which he would marry the young Princess Elizabeth, soon to become Queen Elizabeth II.

Gordonstoun continued to attract the “the sons of the wealthy and powerful”, and later their daughters, becoming coeducational in 1972. Pupils have included not only Prince Charles, but his brothers Princes Andrew and Edward as well as Peter and Zara Phillips, the children of Princess Anne.

Dukes, barons and earls have all attended, along with Oona Chaplin, the actress and daughter of Charlie Chaplin, the writer William Boyd, the actor Jason Connery, David Bowie’s son Zowie (which he rejected in favour of Joey at school) and David Utley of the band Portishead,

The video game and film character Lara Croft is also listed as a former pupil in her fictional biography.

Such an eclectic group is testimony to the school’s approach to education, described by the magazine Which School Advisor as “not academically selective, and works hard to offer an enriched education that can bring out the potential in the academic, the sporty, the arty and many more”.

Hahn resigned from Gordonstoun on health grounds in 1953, and returned to Germany, where he died in 1974. He had left when the then-Prince Charles enrolled in 1962, a moment which put the school in the headlines for the first time and which would largely determine how the public would see it.

Much has been written about the prince’s time at the school. He was reported to have been unhappy and bullied, claims reflected in the Netflix series The Crown.

The reality seems different, or at least more nuanced. He later said the school’s reported toughness was “much exaggerated” and that he had learnt "a great deal about myself and my own abilities and disabilities”.

He also admitted: "I didn't enjoy school as much as I might have; but that was only because I'm happier at home than anywhere else.”

The prince left Gordonstoun with six O levels and two A levels, becoming the first member of the British Royal Family to go to university. He did not, however, choose the school for his own sons, preferring to send them to Eton College, just a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle.

The school today has 500 boarders in eight houses, and about 100 day pupils, ranging from five to 18 years old and paying fees of up to £48,900 ($59,330, Dh218,000) a year.

Gordonstoun is part of a Round Square, a group of 250 schools in 50 countries that follow Hahn’s ideas. In 2016 it appointed its first female principal, Lisa Kerr, who will be succeeded by Peter Green of Rugby School next year.

Updated: October 26, 2023, 4:02 AM