A Uniform Approach

17th February 2012

As we approach 22 February, the birthdate of Lord Robert Baden-Powell and thus known in the Scout Movement as Founder’s Day, Heather Harris looks at the enduring appeal of the organisation he established over one hundred years ago.

Such was the level of media frenzy, you’d think Kate Middleton had opted for the Mormons…

But no, she’s merely decided to don a woggle and a campfire blanket and sign up for the Scouts.

It would be interesting to know what the Queen makes of this ‘controversial’ decision. After all she and her sister, Princess Margaret, did have their own Guide Pack – the 1st Buckingham Palace Company – established for them back in 1937, although one gets the feeling that they were more at home practising for their flower pressing badge (it would take a brave tester to fail them; might be more than the flower heads that were swiftly cut off…) than catching and gutting a leaping salmon or scuba diving or any of the other activities enjoyed by today’s Boy Scouts – all certainly a far cry from Her Majesty’s meetings in the Buckingham Palace Summerhouse.

“I think that what appealed to the Duchess [of Cambridge] about the Scouts was the emphasis on outdoor activities,” Simon Carter, spokesman for the Scouting Movement, tells me – speaking from their headquarters, which, disappointingly, are located in East London and not in a tented village clinging to a sheer cliff face.

Apparently the out-of-doors focus was one of the reasons why, in 1976, the macho world of scouting lifted up its tent flaps and invited the fairer sex in. Of the 400,000 current members, 60,000 are female.

As the mother of one 13-year-old Girl Scout told me, “She didn’t get on with Guides. She wanted the more adventurous activities. I get the feeling Scouts is run as a boy’s organisation and if one of the girls wants to join in then that’s fine, but they shouldn’t expect any special treatment…”. They do get their own tent at camp, though, which I’m sure is a relief to Kate – and her bodyguards.

It is incredible that this – arguably very old-fashioned – movement (famously started by Robert Baden-Powell in 1907) continues to thrive in today’s techno-world where children can generally get all the adrenaline rush they need from their own armchair.

“We don’t pretend to be cool,” Simon adds, “but what we offer is an environment rather freer than the cotton wool, health and safety obsessed world of school and society as a whole. We use common sense but also encourage our members to challenge themselves.”

And it’s cheap, as the mother of one 14-year-old Scout points out. “A week’s camp costs £100, and they do brilliant things which would have cost a fortune, and would have been far more sanitised, at a commercially run holiday camp – including taking the controls of a light aircraft!”

With TV adventurer Bear Gryll as the new (and youngest ever) Chief Scout, and badges shifting away from Sign Language and Origami and more towards ‘103 ways with a sharpened axe,’ Beavers (6 - 8 years), Cubs (8 - 101/2) and Scouts (101/2 - 14) have clearly carved themselves a promising future.

The only thing holding them back in the second decade of the 21st century is the lack of volunteer leaders. The trouble is that, by the time your average would-be Akela has struggled in from the office at 8pm, the boys have packed away their pen knives and headed home.

As Derek Twine, Chief Executive of the Scout Association (I wonder what badges he needed to have in order to get that job?), explains, “We have a waiting list of 33,000. The Duchess’s involvement will be an inspiration to volunteers. No matter how busy you are (even if you, too, are a future Queen) there’s always an opportunity to give support.”

Over in the blue corner, the Girl Guides share the same leadership problems, with Brown Owls and Tawny Owls, who supervise younger girls, facing extinction.

“Girlguiding UK is actively recruiting adult volunteers to lead and inspire girls and young women of all ages,” Gill Slocombe, Chief Guide, tells me, adding that leaders give on average 120 hours a year (which is about how long it takes me to put up a tent).

Refusing to be drawn on why the Duchess has thrown her beret into the macho camp, Gill Slocombe was quick to point out that UK Guiding currently has half a million members, aged between four and 25.
“If they held hands they could stretch around the M25 four an a half times and would fill the Albert Hall 90 times (which is more than Robbie Williams managed and with far better songs).”

And forget about flower pressing; these days companies are more likely to be discussing under-age sex and eating disorders, following their recent high profile survey into the attitudes of young girls.
“Research from Girlguiding UK’s Shout Out! report shows girls and young women of all ages enjoy this space at pack meetings and outings where they can tackle difficult aspects of growing up such as self-esteem and body image,” Gill says.

Surely, over at the nostalgically named Woodcraft Folk, a more radical and less militaristic organisation which currently boasts 20,000 male and female UK members aged between 4 and 15, such modern problems are buried firmly under the bushes?

Not according to Woodcrafter, Phin Harper. “Woodcraft Folk will never have to ask itself whether it is relevant for young people today, because the whole point is that it challenges them to think harder, to engage with the world around them and to co-operate in a 21st century society.”

He goes on to explain that on their regular camps, members are more likely to be debating climate change, social injustice, international conflict and fair economics than learning campfire songs. Woodcrafters also actively supported the recent protests against the trebling of University Tuition Fees (an issue which Phin says the Scouting Movement felt was too ‘political’).

And, to finally squash the whimsical Woodcraft stereotype, he quotes Bob Cannell, a director of wholesale food company SUMA, “Suma needs people who can organise themselves and collaborate in cooperative teams. So when I come across a Woodcraft interviewee – and I can spot them – I heave a sigh of relief. Here is a young person who knows how to behave in 21st century business.”

So we’re all clearly barking up the wrong tree when it comes to job prospects… Forget about A*s and University degrees, a Woodcraft Folk uniform is what really counts.

As bizarre as this may sound, it does have a ring of truth. Membership of any these Youth Organisations (plus the Sea Scouts, Army Cadets, Territorial Army, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and so on) really does help at job interviews.

“It shows that applicants have done more with their young lives than pore over books,” explained one of the directors of a large Leisure Company, who regularly interviews young people.
Future employment may seem a long way off to the average 11-year-old who currently dreams of being the next Rooney (minus the ears) or Cheryl Cole (minus the ex) but parents could do worse than pack him or her off to a youth organisation.

After all, in a decade or so, the ability to identify badger prints or to capsize a canoe in gale conditions may just what a future employer is looking for.

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