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Scouts smarten up for centenary

The Scout movement has had facelifts before but this time it is more of a metamorphosis to suit modern children and volunteers. Julie Morrice reports

It's Monday evening and there is little sign of activity in central Selkirk. Occasionally a car stops outside the late night grocers or the chip shop and a few teenagers scuffle around the statue of Sir Walter Scott until the cold gets to them. Otherwise all seems quiet.

Below the square, a low road sweeps along the river. At one of the old mill buildings young people are arriving, wrestling with the recalcitrant door and pelting up the stairs to a low-ceilinged room bright with lights and loud with voices: it's Scouts night.

Although Selkirk is far from being the largest town in the Borders, it can boast the biggest Scout group: two Beaver colonies (six to eight-year-olds), two Cub packs (eight to 10-and-a-half years), a troop of 25 Scouts (10-and-a-half to 15-and-a-half) and a leadership team of 10. Tonight there are 17 boys and Rachel.

Girls have been admitted to Scouting since 1991. In Scotland, they now make up 4 per cent of the youth membership.

National Commissioner Graham Coulson calls everyone to order with the air of a kindly commandant. "Come on. Off the curtains; leave the furniture alone."

Eventually the troop is grouped together, slouching on benches and relatively responsive to the leaders' plans for the evening, ever ready with cheeky back-chat. What would Lord Baden-Powell have made of this group? Some are in uniform, some not. Above them hangs a small Union flag.

"Someone once said to me that the best days of Scouting are long past," says Mr Coulson as we retreat downstairs for a chat. Above us the ceiling almost bows under the influence of 18 scouts, a tennis ball and two hockey sticks. "In many ways I would have to agree. But there are still good days of Scouting and many more to come."

For the past five years, Mr Coulson has been involved in a major review of the Scout movement. He has travelled all over the UK, speaking to scouts, scout leaders and young people who were scouts but dropped out. The researches have led to what the Scout Association describes as "the most far-reaching changes to its identity, image and programme for decades I a metamorphosis that will set the pattern of Scouting for the next 100 years".

The review has come partly in preparation for the first centenary of Scouting in 2007, when the UK will host the international celebrations, and partly as a response to a long-term problem in keeping teenagers in the movement.

The current census figures say Scotland has 9,441 beavers, 12,841 cubs, 9,138 scouts and 1,469 venture scouts. As scouts turn 13, 14 or 15, they tend to drop out. The trend has not been getting any less steep over the past 20 years.

Graeme Luke, the programme and development executive at the Scottish headquarters of the Scout Association, says: "I'm 34. When I was a boy, I would have gone out five nights a week to Scouts if I could. But now it is only a very small part of the marketplace."

Talk to almost any adult in the movement and sooner or later you will hear the same response: young people are different now. There is more pressure on them at school; they have less time; they have more choices; they don't have the same attitude towards authority; they want more say in decision-making; they have lost the ability to play.

In an effort to respond to these changes, the Scout Association has rebranded itself. It has a revamped logo, revamped uniforms and new handbooks with less text and a colourful look. Also, for the first time since Scouting began, there has been a review of all the age sections. This has been an exhaustive, multimillion-pound exercise, funded almost entirely by the movement itself.

The outdated public perception of Scouting is one of the key issues for the association. "People still think of big hats, baggy shorts and broom poles," says Mr Luke. "That's our tradition, but we have moved on."

In a public opinion poll eight years ago, Scouting came in as the second most popular British institution. First place was taken by Marks and Spencer. The challenge for the movement is to modernise its image without losing its core values.

The Scout promise and law are at the heart of Scouting, but do those solemn references to duty, God and the Queen really fit with a forward-looking organisation competing for young people's time in the 21st century? "We toyed with the idea of changing the wording," says Greg Stewart, assistant director of the Scout Association, "but our research showed overwhelming support for keeping them as they are."

Having been involved in Scouting since the age of eight, he feels that what he got out of it - "the opportunity to lead as a youngster, to go camping, to learn how to get on with other people, to develop a sense of service to other people" - is what young people can still get out of it.

Mr Coulson says his interviews across the country showed up one point clearly: that adults and young people have strongly divergent ideas about what Scouting should be.

"Adults think it should be very structured and much the same all around the country. The young people said that why they wanted to be there was basically because of the friendship. They want to learn things but in a non-formal situation, and they want more say in the running of it."

The association has gone with the youth vote. People under 25 have been invited on to committees and councils at every level and the new Scouting programme, being launched this month, emphasises flexibility and choice rather than uniformity.

Scouts will have more say in the choice of activities and the structure of meetings. There will be less emphasis on proficiency badges and more on a balanced programme of personal and team development, covering areas such as fitness, communication and the environment. In recognition of the more sedentary lifestyles of many people now, extra emphasis will be given to outdoor activities.

The most obvious change is in the age ranges. At 14, young people will move from Scouts to become Explorer Scouts and from 18 to 25 they will become Network Scouts. Within these new groupings, the programme will be much more activity-based.

"There will be specialist interest groups. They can dip into the bits they want and leave the rest," says Iain Fairbairn, group scout leader in Selkirk. This means those who like hillwalking can join the Explorer Scout outings but do not have to turn up for gatherings every week.

"These are the ones we wouldn't have had as Scouts at all, and if we say that's not what Scouting is, then we won't survive," says Mr Fairbairn.

In the Selkirk hall, the troop is proving its manual and mental dexterity in a series of challenges around the room. In one corner, some are building a bridge out of dry spaghetti; in another, some are attempting to whistle a recognisable tune after swallowing a cream cracker; the other two corners are occupied with tower building, using either wooden blocks of different shapes or sugar cubes. If decibel level is a measure of enjoyment, the Scouts are having a fantastic time.

"Every Monday night is a highlight," says Mr Coulson. "It's difficult to say this without sounding sentimental, but it is a real privilege to be part of a young person's life. And they acknowledge you in later life. Even the toughest of them give you the nod if you pass them in the street."

"It can be frustrating I the noise levels," smiles Mr Fairbairn, "but seeing them develop is the greatest reward; when you stretch them a little or give them an experience they wouldn't otherwise have."

He thinks it is the simple things that appeal to Scouts themselves. "They like being out in the countryside around a campfire and no one telling them to go to bed."

He remembers one camping trip when he went to his tent, leaving a group of boys by the fire. "I could hear them still chatting. I was there but since they couldn't see me, I wasn't part of it. It was a starry night and they started talking about whether there was anything really out there."

Giving 13-year-olds the opportunity to look up at the night sky and share their thoughts about the universe seems a good enough reason to keep going.

Scout Association Scottish Council, Fordell Firs, Hillend, Dunfermline, Fife KY11 5HQ, tel 01383 419073

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