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Reinventing the three Rs

The last few weeks have been interesting ones for Scouting. Broadsheets and tabloids alike have attacked us for dropping the Promise (we haven’t); the Sun has run a particularly insidious campaign suggesting that we don’t vet prospective leaders carefully enough before accepting their offers of help (we do); and our census figures suggest that interest in our activities continues to wane, (although our annual decrease in numbers is beginning to bottom out and even reverse itself in some parts of the country)

We seem to be a long way away from the heady days of thirty years ago, when half of eight to ten year olds in the country were Cub Scouts; of fifty years ago, when the excitement of hosting the World Jamboree in Sutton Coldfield made front page news; or of eighty years ago, when Winston Churchill wrote of Scouting that “there twinkled the camp fires of a vast new army whose ranks will never be empty, and whose march will never be ended while red blood courses in the veins of youth. It is difficult to exaggerate the moral and mental health which our nation has derived from this profound and simple conception.”

Churchill had what he called ‘Black Dog’ days, when he felt himself slipping into deep depression. I can’t liken myself to Churchill in any way other than that, just occasionally, I have the odd ‘Black Dog’ day too. And when I do, I tend to wonder whether Scouting might just have been one of those wizard wheezes of the twentieth century, a nostalgic kick back to the days of Enid Blyton, Captain W E Johns and Richmal Crompton. I ponder that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and question whether Scouting might just be an anachronism in the shiny ipod listening, Xbox playing virtual world of the early twenty-first century.

But then I think of the Founder. And I consider what an extraordinary educational innovator he was; far, far ahead of his time. The promise, the focus on Citizenship, taking responsibility and participation, the use of small groups, the idea that a Leader is a facilitator as well as a teacher – these are all ideas that could have been written about yesterday. The Times Educational Supplement is running two campaigns at the moment. One is to get schools to think more internationally; the other is to re-energise the creativity of teachers. Baden-Powell was running both these campaigns over 97 years ago – and he won them too.

When I look around London, in the street where I live in East End, the leafier roads of Hampstead, the parks in Kensington or the tower blocks of Peckham and Lewisham, I realise that Scouting has an enormous amount to offer young people. If we are an anachronism, it’s because we’ve forgotten what we have to offer, have grown less proud about what we do – or perhaps have become embarrassed about the commitment we make, week in, week out, in contrast to some of our less community minded neighbours and workmates.

It’s time for us to rediscover the pride we have in Scouting. To shout about what we do with young people and the impact we make on their lives, aspirations and potential. To encourage more adults, from a wide range of backgrounds, faiths and cultures, to join the adventure of Scouting.

But what do we need to shout? When I was a primary school headteacher, I saw the introduction of the National Curriculum. I listened to a variety of government ministers and heads of various quangos barking at me on the TV every night, telling me to get back to basics, to remember the three R’s. (That always amused me. For people so keen on literacy, it seemed a shame that they couldn’t choose three words – Reading, writing and arithmetic – that actually began with the letter R.) Recently, I think I may have discovered three new R’s – and ones that describe clearly what we should be telling people about Scouting.

The first is Roots. With our set of fundamentals and our commitment to helping young people to grow physically, intellectually, socially and spiritually, we give our members the opportunity to root themselves firmly in a bed of values. The Promise is of course at the heart of this. I first made my promise as a young Scout at the age of eleven. I can remember putting one hand on a flag staff and, with my right, making the Scout Sign. Over the years I have learned that the Promise describes the way I try to live my life – and I suspect that’s true for most if not all of us who, as adults, now make the Promise regularly.

In 1909, BP wrote, “Keep before your mind in all your teaching that the whole ulterior motive of this scheme is to form character in the boys – to make them manly, good citizens…. Aim for making each individual into a useful member of society, and the whole will automatically come on to a high standard.”

For children in London, that shared set of values, one that can transcend race, class or faith, is terribly important. Look at the messages of hate and mistrust that come from other sources, whether in the street, the playground or from TV and the media – and the roots that we provide young people by helping them to make and live by a simple Promise of tolerance, respect, duty and perseverance become all the more significant. In my local primary school, 35 languages are spoken. All the major faiths are represented. We’re close to an estate that last summer erupted in a well-publicised riot, fuelled by race hatred. Helping our young people to develop the roots and values needed for a healthy adult life is far from an anachronistic desire – it’s a necessity.

Children need roots to grow and wings to fly.

The second R is Risk. Nature shows us that baby animals grow by being exposed to risks by their parents and learning to make decisions and deal with those risks by themselves. But in London, and maybe the whole country over, our young humans are being shielded from risk to such an extent that they may grow into adulthood without developing the skills they need to become fully rounded citizens.

Take the school run for instance. Children used to learn about the dangers of traffic by walking to school, or taking the bus. Now, and not just in Kensington and Chelsea, Fulham or Islington, children are piled into the back of four-by-fours and never learn how to cross a road safely. Twenty-nine per cent of London’s children are living in overcrowded conditions, compared to 13 per cent in England as a whole. This rises to 41 per cent in inner London. And they stay in those overcrowded conditions, not being able to play and run and shout and take the simple risks of childhood. Just over half of young Londoners live within a five-minute walk of a park or green space, but recent survey research has shown that children in inner city areas are less likely to engage in active play than children in other areas – because their mums and dads won’t let them out to play.

Children are being wrapped in cotton wool by fearful parents. One of the things that Scouting can do is help to unwrap that cotton wool a bit and let children take risks within a relatively safe and managed environment. At District Camp just a few weeks ago, I spoke to a Beaver Scout who had never been out of her part of London before. She’d travelled by train for the first time in her life to take part in the sleepover we’d organised for the Beavers. She’d climbed a tree for the first time. She’d got muddy for the first time. And she was loving it. When we delivered her back to her Mum the following day, all she could keep saying was that it had all been ‘so exciting’.

And, of course, it’s not just the youngest Beaver Scout who gets to take a risk in Scouting. It’s the Cub who abseils for the first time; the Scout who does their first night hike; the Explorer who travels abroad without his parents…

Every week, we help young people to take risks. And risks are good. Montessori wrote that “The key to successful education is not so much to teach the pupil as to get him to learn for himself”. That’s what Scouting does.

The third R is relationships. Scouting succeeds because it helps young people build trust with their peers and with adults. We embrace a big responsibility as Leaders. We may be the first adult that a young person has chosen as a friend and mentor. Before us, all adult contacts, in the family or at school, will have been imposed by others. So we have to make sure we don’t misuse the power of that relationship. But when that relationship is modelled well it serves to help the young person develop new relationships with others – and to become an active member of his or her community.

And in Scouting, relationships are tested. Look at BP’s ideas about the importance of the Patrol, the Six or other small groups and one sees the way that he allowed young people to rehearse all the skills and behaviours that they would need in adult life. In 1908, when reflecting on his experimental camp at Brownsea, he wrote, “The troop of boys was divided up into ‘Patrols’ of five, the senior boy in each being Patrol Leader. This organization was the secret of our success. Each patrol leader was given full responsibility for the behaviour of his patrol at all times, in camp and in the field. The patrol was the unit for work or play, and each patrol was camped in a separate spot. The boys were put ‘on their honour’ to carry out orders. Responsibility and competitive rivalry were thus at once established and a good standard of development was ensured throughout the troop from day to day.”

There is a fourth R. And it’s Relevance. I believe, except on those ‘black dog days’, that Scouting is truly as relevant to young people and our communities as it has ever been. We can, genuinely, be a force for good. And, perhaps, one that challenges others to change their attitudes and break down inequality. BP believed this too of course and it’s interesting to note a passage from within the first edition of Scouting for Boys, even if it was removed in later editions by worried editors!

BP wrote, “We are all Socialists in that we want to see the abolition of the existing brutal anachronism of war, and of extreme poverty and misery shivering alongside of superabundant wealth, and so on; but we do not quite agree as to how it is to be brought about. Some of us are for pulling down the present social system, but the plans for what is going to be erected in its place are very hazy. We have not all got the patience to see that improvement is in reality gradually being effected before our eyes.”

Our challenge, of course, is to help the next generation of leaders and young people recognise the fun of Scouting – and not be embarrassed to join the adventure. We have two giant tasks to undertake in the next few months as we prepare for our centenary. Firstly, we have to recruit more adults from a wider range of backgrounds, to become Leaders. It is only with great Leaders that we can provide great programmes – and we know that when we provide great programmes, young people come and join us. Secondly, we have to explain the 4 R’s to those prospective Leaders – and be brave enough to accept that they might want to interpret them in new ways, by doing new and different things with young people. And they might want to do those things at different times and in different places. I am not sure that the once a week meeting in a school or Scout hall is the right model for our second century – but that’s the subject of another article!


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