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‘In among all the gloom, there is some amazing work going on to empower girls’

Think you knew the Girl Guides? Think again, writes for the former DfE mental health tsar

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Think you knew the Girl Guides? Think again, writes for the former DfE mental health tsar

There are two weeks left of the summer holibobs which means its peak time for the media to run all manner of stories relating to young people and how, owing to their mindless actions and total lack of humanity, we’re all going to hell in a handcart.

This year, it’s pornography and sexting that have been identified as the scourge of youth culture (and of course, rather than examining the side-effects of neoliberalism, our individualistic, hypersexualised society and the fact that we allow profit-making to run roughshod over human wellbeing, the finger has been squarely pointed at children and their parents, with schools being called upon to mop up the whole sorry mess. How exactly they are expected to do that when PSHE isn’t mandatory and therefore unfunded and barely acknowledged at leadership level is quite the mystery?).

In the spirit of wanting to inject some positivity (in the midst of A-level results day, too), this week I thought I’d write about Action for Change, an initiative being launched today by Girlguiding UK that shows girls and young women how to campaign for the social change they’d like to see in their schools, communities and on a national level.

More than singing hymns and tying knots

If, like me, you remember Girl Guides as being mainly about making cakes, tying complicated knots and singing hymns while holding hands in the local village hall, you’re in for a shock. Under the leadership of Julie Bentley, the Girl Guides have reinvented themselves as a platform for young women to shout about sexism and social injustice. Girlguiding UK has had its say at government level on everything from body image to sexual harassment in schools. They’re teaching girls that their place isn’t just in the kitchen making cakes (or…you know…tying a rope somewhere) but that they have real, tangible power. It is very, very cool.

I spoke to Charlotte, a 17-year-old from the West Midlands about how Action for Change has impacted on her life. She said, quite simply, that it makes her "feel like my voice matters". I asked her whether, to some extent, she thought all young people were voiceless in our culture, or whether this applies particularly to girls.

"There’s this misconception that young people are apathetic about politics and social change," she said. "But when you actually talk to them, they’re really passionate about it. So, yes, I do think all young people to an extent feel silenced, but when you throw sexism into the mix it makes it worse for girls. There is still a stereotype that girls are superficial and that they aren’t as intelligent."

Girlguiding’s Attitudes Survey showed that the biggest issues young women in Britain would like to see tackled are gender stereotyping, cyberbullying and, I was both encouraged and concerned to hear, mental health.

Call for compulsory PSHE

I asked Charlotte what her own mental health education had been like at school. She said it was "really good, actually" – even pointing to some work the Self-Esteem Team had done with students. However, Charlotte said, a lot of her friends who went to different schools and didn’t have the same opportunities to have outside speakers or high quality PSHE lessons.

"It was really difficult to see them battling through some inevitable issues – the impact on some of them was devastating," she added.

When I asked Charlotte to name the one change she would make to ensure better education for young women, she didn’t hesitate. "Making PSHE compulsory – that way we can ensure young people are well-informed and have autonomy. It would be an investment in our future."

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

To find out more about action for change, visit

Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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