How this former Sheffield teacher's Royal connection made him a class act
The Duke of Edinburgh changed my life.
Sounds like a good headline, if a bit far-fetched, but for former Sheffield teacher Ken Dunn it’s actually true.
The 58-year-old taught in Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham before retiring to concentrate on the charity he founded to help children in Africa.
All of this was made possible by the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme.
Ken was born in Berwick, Northumberland, one of six children in a Catholic family. They lived in a council house and he seemed destined for an apprenticeship.
But he had also been doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and the freedom it offered changed his life.
None of his family had been to university and at 16, he had a choice.
Ken said: “I was lined up to be an apprentice engineer and had been offered a job, but the appeal of staying on, doing the Gold Award and being captain of the rugby team determined my pathway.”
The award had made him dare to dream and when he earned it his mum was there to see him.
“My mum collected all the newspaper cuttings of my stories about Prince Philip since she came to Buckingham Palace to see me presented to the Duke Of Edinburgh as a Gold Award recipient,” he says.
“All 5ft 6 of me was placed in the back row of the group from Northumberland and the photographer was gesturing for me to move as I could hardly be seen.
“Unbeknown to mum, the Duke's equerry had asked if anyone had done anything with their Award or since getting their Gold Award and I mentioned I had been selected for a British Schools Expedition to central Iceland.
“The Duke was duly informed and as he approached our group, he headed straight for me and we stood chatting for ages about Iceland and about how Icelandic midges liked Royal blood! As he moved away, I saw the widest-grinning mother in Christendom!”
Ken was also influenced by a geography teacher whose lessons, he says, helped him see maps in 3D, a gift he would use to get the award, going on a five-day 50-mile hike in the Highlands.
He studied geography as part of his degree and got his first job teaching the subject alongside outdoor education. This allowed Ken to lead many young people to far flung corners of the world, working in some dramatic, hostile and fragile environments.
It was 1986 and Ken was at Clifton Comprehensive, Rotherham, close to where he still lives.
He spent eight years at Clifton before moving to the now defunct Royston High School in Barnsley.
Following a 10-year stint in Barnsley, he was offered the assistant head’s post of City School, Sheffield, now the Outwood Academy in Stradbroke.
After a successful 23-year career, Ken left school leadership to establish his social enterprise Connecting Communities Worldwide.
He now offers this work through a registered charity Africa’s Gift, named to dispel the notion that Africa is just a place that receives.
The father-of-two retains links with education in Sheffield, having received an honorary doctorate from Hallam University and proudly telling how both his children are at university here.
His vision for positive environmentalism and his passion as a change maker won him numerous awards, and his work in the African country of 2000 earned him the honorary degree from Hallam.
Having set up Africa’s Gift, Ken was approached by the Prince of Lesotho, now his close friend, and the Prince became patron.
The focus from expeditions to countries changed to one where he wanted to partner with the communities he was visiting. It led to community development projects, where practical action and enterprise are the focus.
His work has been recognised and supported regionally, nationally and by the United Nations. He is involved in more than 20 global and ethical partnerships which aim to be transformational for all involved.
All this from a Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award.
Ken says: “Without the confidence gained through the amazing DofE scheme and a mind blowing Gold expedition across the Scottish Mountains - I doubt any of this would have happened.
“This lad from Berwick on Tweed would have taken the apprenticeship I was offered and would be working in a factory with oil stained hands!”
Ken would return to Buckingham Palace - indeed into the Duke of Edinburgh's office - to hand over wedding gifts from the Prince of Lesotho for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He gave them Wonderbags, cloth slow cookers which Ken demonstrated how to use at the Palace, two days before the wedding.
He’s writing a book about his life, working title Okay then, change it (all publishers welcome to contact Ken!) It sounds as dramatic as the change he wants to bring about.
One story to be told is how he saved his brother David’s life, who was bitten by a snake on a family holiday in France.
Ken said: “David was reaching towards a frog at the same time it was being eyed up by an adder. The snake whapped him right between the knuckles. At first I was laughing, saying ‘Do you think you’re Steve Irwin?’
“But David went into anaphylactic shock. I got him in the car and was driving at 120mph, with his daughter behind me. She asked ‘Is my dad going to die?”
Fortunately, Ken found a hospital, where doctors had been alerted to the incoming patient. “They told me if we’d been there three minutes later he would have died.”
As if that wasn’t enough, he also had to rescue his wife Karen after she suffered heart failure while swimming in Hellaby, Rotherham.
“One minute she was fine, the next she went grey and was just bobbing with huge eyes, she couldn’t speak,” says Ken.
“I got her out of the pool, raised her legs and shouted Get an ambulance. A paramedic came and gave her a drug of last resort because her heart was going at 260 beats a minute.
“She made it to the hospital, they shocked her and saved her life.”
He’s keen to thank South Yorkshire for its influence on him and now considers himself an honorary Yorkshireman.
“First and foremost the appeal of Yorkshire is the people,” says Ken. “They’re incredibly warm and I really appreciate the straight talking kids, who say it as it is.
“I remember the first time I took a school trip in 1986 when I was at Clifton. We went to Wimbledon and after an hour we’d agreed to meet up. One boy piped up and kept on so I let him speak. ‘Sir, you won’t believe it. They are selling water in bottles! Are they soft down here or what?’ Unheard of in Clifton, of course.”
He still lectures at Hallam and some of his students have come from the schools he taught at, which makes him proud.
Ken’s final message is to primary schools in our area to help his mission to put shoes on African children. “My offer is that we will collect the shoes and they will get a 40-minute illustrated presentation by me.”
As an award winning photographer and regarded as a powerful speaker you would be guaranteed a message which is punchy but uplifting.
Ken invites every listener to use their talents and energies to engage in positive action, while considering the role of money in their lives, as he challenges us that the best things in life are not material things.
To get involved email him on [email protected]