Where elfins and venturers are equals

5th March 1999 at 00:00
If the Scouts or Girl Guides are not for you, the Woodcraft Folk would like to make friends, writes Carolyn O'Grady

Last summer the Woodcraft Folk camp site at Lurgashall in West Sussex looked no different from the many collections of tents that are found dotted around the countryside at that time of year, except, perhaps, that it was like the rural idyll which camping ought to be but so rarely is: very relaxed and rather quiet, no raucous music, no shouting. Rather low key in fact - which is what this year the Woodcraft Folk have decided not to be.

After a strategic review this educational charity, which aims to develop skills that enable children "to bring about changes they feel are necessary to create a more equal and caring world", intends to raise its profile and redouble its fundraising efforts. It also wants to widen its appeal, in particular among children and adults from the ethnic minorities.

The Woodcraft Folk mix a dash of socialism with environmental conservation, gender and racial equality and peace movement philosophy; add some rather odd ceremonies, including "the morning cry" and the fire-lighting ceremony, each with its own poetic incantations along the lines of "See the spark, O my comrades", and you'll have not the whole story, but a flavour.

The movement was started in 1925 by former Scout Leslie Paul, partly as a reaction against what he felt was the Scouts' militarism, religiousness and anti co-education philosophy. Now it is funded mainly by the Co-operative movement, though it also receives a grant from the Department for Education and Employment.

At its peak during the Eighties it had a membership of 20,000 young people. It is particularly strong in Sheffield, the South and south London, where it began.

The charity's strategic review lists more than 100 objectives. As well as raising its profile and widening its membership, these include plans to strengthen its international work; upgrade its educational materials on children's rights, development education, racism and gender issues and health; improve its centres and make more effective use of information and communications technology (it now has a website).

But while its image and operations may come in for a brushing up, its philosophy still remains the same. "Our values - co-operation, friendship and equality - are needed even more now as an antidote to an increasingly competitive society," says Adrienne Lowe, chair of the south-east region. To illustrate the point, at the weekly or fortnightly Woodcraft Folk meetings, children have discussions, play games, do craftwork, sing and dance, but rarely ever play any competitive sport.

Is it socialist indoctrination? Not in any party political sense, says Adrienne Lowe. "The point is to empower young people to make decisions for themselves. We like to see ourselves as a progressive organisation which, long before these things became commonplace, was co-educational, worked on a co-operative basis and tackled issues such as racism and xenophobia."

The Woodcraft Folk form part of the International Falcon Movement, an umbrella organisation for like-minded bodies. Through this organisation the charity organises exchanges and joins in an International Camp every year. It also takes part in a number of projects with groups abroad, such as working with refugees in the Sahara.

Woodcraft Folk come in four varieties: Elfins (aged 6-9), Pioneers (aged 10-12), Venturers (aged 13-15) and District Fellows (aged 16-20). There are also Wood Pigeons who are too young to be official members. The summer camp is divided into clans, with each clan having particular duties, and twice a day they gather in a council circle where everyone, from the smallest to the eldest, can voice an opinion.

The children at Lurgashall are eager to talk. For one District Fellow, joining the Woodcraft Folk means meeting lots of people and opportunities to visit places abroad. She is off to India soon. And Greg, a Pioneer, says: "It teaches us about friendship and being co-operative." But there is no doubting his enthusiasm for the multitude of activities at the camp, which include windsurfing, dinghy sailing, swimming, cycling, archery and an adventure playground.

In the evenings the children sing songs around the camp fire, toast marshmallows and perform "sketches". Who needs television?

* Woodcraft Folk, 13 Ritherdon Road, London SW17 8QQE. Tel :0181 672 6031. Website: www.poptel.org.ukwoodcraft

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