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7 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

“It’s the original social network”: Bear Grylls explains why the Scouts now have a waiting list of 55,000

Far from dying out, scouting is now more popular than at any time in its history.

By Augusta Riddy

Simon Carter, head of media relations for the Scout Association, is waiting at the entrance of the Kings Hall Community Centre, resplendent in his beige scout uniform, complete with neckerchief and woggle. Looking down at the itinerary for the evening, it’s a relief to see that “knots” is firmly scheduled for 7.45pm.

We are visiting a group in Willesden. The children gathered in this centre are between the ages of 8-10 years old, making them “cubs”. A volunteer shouts “pack, pack, pack” signalling the meeting has begun, and everyone scurries into their groups of six, forming four – sort of – orderly lines. As well as tying knots, the cubs learn how to prepare food hygienically and dial 999 for an ambulance.

One of the children, Malaki, likes the Scouts because you get to do “loads of fun activities” and get badges. He is a “seconder”, meaning he helps to look after his group or “six”, he explains proudly. Malaki’s mother, Lorraine, says that it is “getting him out of his shell.” She is one of two adult volunteers shepherding the group this evening. She takes a keen interest in her son’s extra-curricular activities, and, finding herself waiting around at the sessions anyway, decided she might as well get involved; 45 per cent of all volunteers are parents of scouts. The other volunteer, Jeele, is a young football coach, who starting volunteering to “give something back to the community”.

The Willesden Green district currently has 68 children on waiting lists waiting to join. Across the country there are 55,000 children on waiting lists hoping to join the Scouts. In the 90s the movement was haemorrhaging 30,000 members a year. What turned it around?

The Boy Scout Association was founded in 1907 by Baden Powell. In 1967 the Advance Party Report was enacted, leading to changes such as the removal of “Boy” so it became the “Scout Association”. In 1991, the organisation became fully co-educational, mixing boys and girls at every level. However, between the mid-80s and late 90s a period of stagnation set in, until a re-brand in the early 00s. They changed “pretty much everything”, says Matt Hyde, chief executive of the Scout Association, and himself a cub scout leader. This included a new uniform and a revamped programme, offering 200 exciting activities signalling a return to outdoor and adventurous pursuits, with a new range of badges to match.

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In 2014 the Association appointed a youth commissioner to sit with the management team, and the organisation has been increasingly “putting young people in the lead,” says Hyde. “25 per cent of our trustees are under 25.” Community outreach, a fixture of early scouting, is back on the agenda. The Association launched the “A Million Hands” campaign, which aims to involve half a million young people in local social issues, one of which is dementia. Since the campaign’s launch the Association has trained 16,000 “dementia friends”.

All these changes have seen the movement come back into fashion, and it has been growing year-on-year for the past 12 years. There are 457,000 young people in the Association, supported by 154,000 adult volunteers.

The celebrity adventurer and former scout Bear Grylls became chief scout in 2012. The addition of Grylls to the team “helped to make it a bit cooler, a bit more interesting, a bit more accessible,” says Hyde. A more enthusiastic ambassador would be hard to find – Grylls describes being asked to take the position as “one of the greatest honours of my life”. His belief in scouting is almost evangelical. “Take away your phone, your devices, your comfort blanket and support network, and what are you really left with? Your character and skills.”

Hyde agrees. “[It’s the] ability to develop the so-called softer skills, the skills that you need to get on in terms of relationships, team working, and leadership,” he argues. “What we do is ‘learning by doing’, which appeals to lots of young people for whom perhaps the current education system is not necessarily working.” A recent survey found that scouts are 17 per cent more likely to have leadership skills and 11 per cent more likely to be better problem solvers. “I think it’s the world’s best leadership development programme, I really do,” says Hyde proudly.

Did the movement help Grylls get where he is today? “As a nine year old cub scout I felt welcomed and valued for who I was. Knowing I had the support and encouragement of those around me gave me the confidence to go for things and not to be afraid to fail.”

Despite the fact that, as Grylls points out, “scouts today are just as likely to be coding as canoeing”, it is intriguing that seemingly old-fashioned activities like camping and orienteering appeal so strongly to the digital generation. “In an age of Xboxes and YouTube there is still something incredibly powerful about kids learning how to tie a knot and make a catapult,” reflects Hyde. “There’s something almost counter-cultural, given where we are now, that still resonates with young people.”

Grylls thinks that it is because of how “increasingly insular” the world has become that children find scouting so enjoyable, and it appeals to parents as well. “There’s some essential magic in the basic Scout formula which works just as well today as it did in 1907. I think parents want their children to develop real skills, real friendships and have real experiences. In a sense we are the original social network.”

A major focus in recent years has been inclusivity. Girls now make up 27 per cent of scouts, a percentage that continues to rise. The lead volunteer is a gay man, and the chair of trustees is a gay woman. Volunteers work with the organisation Mermaids to develop “an inclusive culture for transgender young people who are involved in scouting”.

Although one of the fastest-growing areas of the movement is among young Muslims, as of 2014 atheists are also allowed to become scouts. Striking right at the cultural heart of the organisation, a new “promise” – the pledge taken upon joining – was developed that doesn’t require a child to swear to a god. 

The Association has also worked hard to be more inclusive in terms of delivery, aiming to capture groups of children from different backgrounds. “There’s the traditional model where you go to the scout hut at seven o’clock on a Tuesday night,” explains Hyde, “ [but] if you’ve got young people with complicated lives or disrupted lives, by offering scouting in school or after school we’re reaching more young people.” He gives the example of Sheffield, where scouts meet immediately after school, and have since gained members from the local Roma community. “I do not believe we would have reached those kids if we’d asked them to come back at seven o’clock.”

An aim of the “2018 Vision”, launched back in 2013, was to establish packs in 200 of the most deprived areas in the country. Since making that pledge, they’ve added 648 new units in areas of deprivation. “We smashed it,” grins Hyde. The Scouts are in 90 of the poorest 100 wards in the UK.

But can scouting actually help children living in deprivation? Grylls thinks so. “When you take scouts to climb a mountain or walk through a gorge, it can be a defining moment for a young person who has rarely left their estate. Suddenly a whole new world opens up.” Hyde thinks activity-based learning is hugely important for children from poorer backgrounds: “if you’re serious about social mobility, then what you do outside the classroom and the lecture is critical to your life chances.”

Indeed, sending a child to the Scouts is relatively inexpensive: it costs around £35 a term. “A whole year of Scouting typically costs less than six piano lessons,” points out Grylls. In certain cases payment is flexible; “if cost is a barrier to the parents,” says Hyde, “then those fees can be waivered or there are other bursaries that can be applied as well. The group will make arrangements.”

The UK Scout Association is one of the only associations in Europe not to receive state funding and the organisation has requested more support; earlier in the year they asked for a £50m grant over 3-4 years, particularly to support their work in deprived areas. Opening a new pack in a poor area is a one-off cost of £550.

A surprising stat from the survey illustrates the impact on deprived areas: scouts were 15 per cent less likely to suffer from mood disorders or anxiety by the age of 50, a percentage that increases for scouts from lower socio-economic groups.

“There is no better way for the government to make an effective response in terms of early intervention,” argues Hyde. “£50m would help us to attack the waiting list pretty heavily and enable us to open in areas of deprivation … to invest in equipment, uniforms that can be recycled, meeting places, and all the core costs.”

Back in Willesden – one of the targeted areas of deprivation – the children are gathering in their “sixes” to end the session. Unfortunately one boy has lost his neckerchief. Head of media relations Simon Carter nods knowingly: “That’s why I tie mine in a friendship knot.” Despite the Association’s period of transformation, this evening’s pack meeting feels timeless, littered with scouting lingo and traditions that have endured since 1907.

Practices must be obeyed; a particularly forthright girl marches around the hall showing parents the correct order the badges should be arranged in. One mother takes a picture on her phone, presumably in the hope she’ll get it right next week. The children will go home, having had loads of fun and now fully prepared to call 999 in an emergency. “If you get stuck in a lift, or washed up on a desert island,” Grylls jokes, “just make sure it’s with a scout!”

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