Outward Bound History

Outward Bound School's History

Having been dissatisfied with the current state of education for youth, an innovative German educator named Kurt Hahn founded the Outward Bound School in Scotland in the 1930’s. He based the curriculum on his educational philosophy emphasizing service to humanity and learning through physical outdoor activity.

The term “Outward Bound” describes a ship leaving the safety of the harbor, the certainties of home, and embarking on a bold adventure out at sea. To this day Outward Bound Programmes encourage our participants to take similar journeys themselves.

One of the first standard Outward Bound courses occurred at the Aberdovey Sea School in 1941 on the west coast of Wales, which offered a 28-day residential course. Twenty-four boys set out on the adventure of training, service, reflection and team-building.


Kurt Hahn

Kurt Hahn was born in Germany in 1896, the son of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, but he lived much of his life in England as an Englishman. He had developed his progressive ideas, first as founder of the Salem School in Germany, and later at Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Scotland, that soon became one of Britain’s most distinguished and innovative schools.

While still a young man, Hahn suffered severe sunstroke that left him with a permanent disability over which he triumphed with the greatest courage. It was partly the long recovery periods associated with the sunstroke that provided him with the opportunity to study educational philosophies in greater depth and formulate the system of education that he promoted throughout his life. He exemplified one of his favorite aphorisms, “your disability is your opportunity”, by turning ill fortune to good purpose.

It was Hahn’s belief that every child is born with innate spiritual powers and ability to make correct judgments about moral issues. In the progression through adolescence, the child loses these spiritual powers and the ability to make moral judgments because of, what Hahn calls, the diseased society and the impulses of adolescence.

As part of his concern for physical well-being he believed that every child has both a natural physical aptitude and a natural physical inaptitude. Both provide opportunities: one to develop strength and the other to overcome weakness. This was the source of another of Hahn’s aphorisms, “There is more in you than you think.” Hahn’s goal was to provide an “ideal pasture” for these innate powers and abilities to manifest themselves. One of the pastures he created was Outward Bound. 

Lawrence Holt

Lawrence Holt, co-founder of Outward Bound, was senior partner in the Liverpool-based Blue Funnel Shipping Line. In the summer of 1941, he was approached by Kurt Hahn to provide support for the short residential courses that Hahn had developed at Gordonstoun as an introduction to his County Badge scheme (now The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award). Holt, a Gordonstoun parent, agreed to lend his company’s assistance to Hahn’s project, but with the condition that the school be ready to enroll students in one month’s time.

The school, later named Outward Bound, was ready in time and would serve the needs of merchant marine cadets and be open to the youth of a nation at war. Holt clearly saw the value of character training and its utility to his untested young merchant mariners. He knew that the small boat handling skills these young men would acquire could one day mean the difference between life and death in survival situations at sea. He also understood that Britain was at a crossroads, and that her youth needed to be better prepared for an uncertain future.

Kurt Hahn credited Holt with choosing “Outward Bound” as the name of the new school. The phrase “Outward Bound” derives from the nautical term that described a ship that was soon to depart the comfort of home port, bound for the uncertainty of the open sea. It was a signal to the sailors that it was time to return to ship.

Each of Outward Bound International’s member countries has had its own remarkable and dedicated founders who have refined and adapted the philosophy of Outward Bound to their own culture.