Scouting Ireland has announced the creation of a ‘Recruitment & Retention’ focus group, in order to better understand the reasons for membership turnover. The composition of this group and the outcome of their deliberations will be interesting, although the former will most likely influence the latter rather heavily.
Whilst Scouting Ireland has been bucking the general trend in National Scout Associations elsewhere in Europe by increasing membership numbers, a closer look at this growth highlights disparities that strategists in Scouting Ireland should be concerned about.
The much-vaunted growth in Scouting is coming largely from Beaver Scouts (for boys and girls aged 6-8), a section of the membership that prior to 1980 did not even exist.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward; the adult population tends to view Scouting as a positive thing for their children to be involved in. Beaver Scout colonies are frequently full and many have waiting lists. It is not uncommon for Group Leaders to be contacted these days on the birth of a child, by the newly minted parent (or perhaps more often by the second or third time parent who has seen the difficulties of getting their older child into Scouting on a previous occasion, such is the demand in many communities), seeking to get said infant onto the ‘waiting list’ in good time for their sixth birthday.
Like good schools, word spreads quickly among parents and a place in a good Beaver Scout colony requires forward planning.
Cub Scouts (for boys and girls aged 9-11) has equally held its own in terms of membership, with annual increases in the national membership tending to be the norm.
Traditionally however, parents tend to have at least a degree of say when it comes to what their child joins up to and gets involved in during the primary school years. The problem for Scouting is that, once the balance shifts and a young person takes full control of their pastime agenda, Scouting often slips through the net.
The trouble begins in the Scout section. Leaving Cub Scouts behind can be traumatic. A young person goes from possibly being a sixer (a sort of team leader) to being a tiny cog in the much bigger, frenetic machine that is the troop. Familiar leaders are left behind, sometimes friends too. This is often the first major upheaval for a young person, given the change to Scouts comes before the progression to secondary school. Equally, continuing schooling is a legal requirement – staying in the scout group is optional.
Not only does a young person begin to exert more control over their own interests and pastimes by about the age of ten, with a changing school pattern comes a new peer group. In an unfamiliar environment and faced with forging a whole new set of friendships, image conscious young people in early teens are susceptible to acceptance of the prevailing narrative around what is ‘cool’ and what is not. Sadly, Scouting in the view of many teens, sits firmly in the latter category.
American and some British TV shows, contribute to the image of Scouting having a coolness deficit, but in Scouting Ireland we do plenty of this work ourselves too, with disproportionate focus on uniform and formality in many of the rare appearances achieved in National media, discarding in the process the opportunity to consistently showcase what we actually do (the stuff that young people enjoy).
Everybody at some level wants to fit in and we explore this concept at its most stark when in our early teens. The coolness deficit that Scouting suffers from in the eyes of those unfamiliar with the reality of the great experiences Scouting offers, is equally stark. This makes continuation in a club where ‘silly uniforms’ and ‘marching with flags’ is par for the course, at variance with the credentials many younger people want to exude in a new school environment or with a new group of friends.
Of course the ‘silly uniforms’ and ‘waving flags’ at every given opportunity is completely unrepresentative of Scouting (Scouting Ireland organized press events excepted of course). Even the groups, who have traditions that involve marching, only do so on occasion. To image conscious teenagers however, who mostly wear a uniform all day in school, the prospect of having to conform in their spare time too, with an even more dated uniform (and getting mocked by their cooler friends for their trouble) is often a bit much to bear.
Along with new friends, secondary school also brings heavier work commitments. Homework is greater in quantity and exams are more regular. In addition, there is a wide array of extra-curricular activities in most schools that are tempting and exciting as the parental role in suggesting activities recedes and individual preferences take over.
The Image of Scouting is therefore not the only problem or challenge facing Scouting in its attempts to recruit and retain people aged 10+. However it is the factor over which the association wields most control. Given the grand canyon-esque disconnect between (non-member) teenager perceptions of Scouting and the actual reality in most scout groups, it is arguably something the association should be moving to remedy in definitive fashion.
The (volunteer) Communications Team of Scouting Ireland under the direction of Jimmy Cunningham (the volunteer Communications Commissioner [Director]) has worked tirelessly to correct these perceptions and has achieved strong results at seeking to bring the toe-curlingly out of date perceptions that many younger people have of Scouting into line with the reality on the ground.
However, the Communications Team faces an uphill struggle to spread this message because too many core decision makers in Scouting Ireland simply do not support the idea that Scouting has an image problem. This in turn leads to the proliferation of unsuitable messaging in the national media, that reinforces negative perceptions. All it takes is one appearance in a National Newspaper by ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ (usually standing in a line and dressed up in what outsiders consider a faintly ridiculous uniform), to undo a year’s work by the Communications Team.
The fact that this type of thing continues to happen is evidence that some National Policy makers in Scouting either simply don’t get it (or perhaps find the lure of self-promotion too strong to resist). This image problem is playing a central part in the significant decline of Scouting in Ireland among young people aged 10+.
In 2003, the irish scouter was a member of the Communications Team. Some research was undertaken in several towns and cities around Ireland to ascertain what young people (non scouts) thought of Scouting. An abiding memory and a key insight from the research, was a comment made by a ten year old boy on the streets of Tralee. When asked about Scouting (as part of a professionally prepared general questionnaire, containing questions on several topics), his response was ‘isn’t that just for kids?’
Apart from a coolness deficit and the increasing commitments to study and other pursuits in secondary school, Scouting is also facing a challenge in terms of the standards of programme offered in Scout Groups.
The volunteer nature of Scouting mean that standards can vary fairly widely from group to group. Unlike a corporate entity such as Mc Donald’s or Tesco, the standard of offer across fairly small areas can vary hugely.
The association is placing a focus on this by piloting the QSE (Quality Scouting Experience). This initiative would appear to mark the beginning of a shift in thinking, away from ‘everyone must be the same’ to a more realistic ‘lets work to get the best out of the resources available in the case of each scout group’.
This approach will help local scout groups who are struggling with resources, especially human resources, to calibrate their offer so that it balances what volunteers can give with what young members can reasonably expect.
However, in the case of older programme sections, image still trumps programme as a barrier to entry. Young people are resourceful, enthusiastic and more than capable of running a scout troop or venture scout group with minimal adult input. The association spent six years developing a programme with youth participation at its core. All the materials exist. The adult role in the context of the older age sections in scouting is about inspiration and support, not direction.
The argument, sometimes put forward by policy makers in Scouting, is that poor programme implementation (and by implication, adult training) is to blame for depleting numbers of Scouts and Venture Scouts. In reality, if this were universally true, membership would be dropping in all sections. The brain drain referred to in the irish scouters post on Quality (earlier in May 2014), applies across all programme sections.
Programme for Scouts (typically boys and girls aged 11-15) and Venture Scouts (young people aged 15-18) requires more planning and more time commitments. However scouters who are genuinely committed to youth participation rarely face insurmountable problems in this area.
The current Chief Scout, now into his final year in office, has announced the initiative to explore the issues of recruitment and retention. This move should be commended (even if the invitation to get involved is rather pompous).
The ‘core team’ involved is of course predictable but hopefully the outputs will be less so. The initiative will arguably attract the usual collection of highly committed career scouters from high performing scout groups to participate. That would be an unfortunate turn of events.
What is actually required here is not a bunch of scoutaholics and a couple of bureaucrats playing with flipcharts and listening to the sound of their own voices for a few hours. The association should use this opportunity to find out WHY people drop out of Scouting (from the people themselves), but also why some never even contemplate joining in the first place.
Professionally prepared, independently undertaken qualitative research will yield some answers and some insights. This is the type of investment that could be worthwhile, provided the insights are understood and the will is there to act upon them. The results should be published too, so all scout groups can not only understand the issues, but can play their part to address them.
THEN, get a task force together. The Communications Director needs to be centrally involved in this too. It does not look like any communications person is part of the group being set up to tackle this issue currently.
This is not a challenge that will be overcome quickly. Young people will continue to drop some of their interests from primary school in favour of new secondary school interests. Study and increased homework will also take its toll on some and require greater focus. It is quite likely that Scouting Ireland’s membership mix will continue to feature proportionately less teenagers than kids and pre-teens, if only because life gets rather more hectic once primary school is complete.
However for a significant and hopefully increasing number of people aged 10+, Scouting will remain a viable option right through to adulthood, provided it projects the sort of image that enables it to stand credibly alongside sport and other interests as a pursuit that more teenagers can be involved in and (critically) be proud of. Image counts.