There was a joke doing the rounds recently on social media about the prospect of a new section in Scouting Ireland to be called ‘Squirrel Scouts’, targeted at four year olds.
The satirical counter view to the joke murmured by a few cynics was why create another programme section when the association already struggles to maintain a sliding membership in Scouts (ages 11-15), has a pitifully small membership in Venture Scouts (ages 15-18) and barely registers a presence in Rover Scouts (ages 18+)?
Nonetheless, theirishscouter believes there could be an opportunity beyond the humour..
Theirishscouter was putting it down to ‘proud parent syndrome’, recently as he regarded a gurgling junior happily playing away with toys, beginning to problem solve and already also displaying several definitive personality traits (some disturbingly familiar), despite not being a year old yet.
However it was the increased level of observation of very young children generally that the acquisition of offspring imposes (meeting other parents, play dates, first birthday parties, etc., etc.) that really highlighted just how advanced small children as young as two and three actually are.
It seems an awfully long time for a young person to have to wait, before they can participate in Scouting, given they must currently reach their sixth birthday before embarking on the Scouting trail.
BEAVER SCOUTS – A BIG SUCCESS STORY
If someone had made the suggestion in the early days of Scouting that six year olds could be accommodated within the Scouting programme, it is likely that their comments might not have been taken entirely seriously.
Typically, the younger the child, the higher the level of adult supervision and the shorter the attention-span (the kids, not the adults) At a time when many of Scouting’s elders had been raised in the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ era, this concept was never going to fly.
That said, Wolf Cubs was a ‘bolt on’ concept to Scouts and catered for a younger age range. By the late 1970’s the view had returned that catering for an even younger age range was not only valid and right to do – there was clearly also a market out there for it.
Beaver Scouts was trialled in Northern Ireland by the Scout Association in the mid 1960’s and by the 1970’s was also working well in Scotland. In Ireland, it came into existence very late in the 1970’s in SAI and was being piloted in CBSI until it became a formal part of the programme around 1983*.
Scouting has never looked back from this. In Ireland today, barring Cub Scouts, there are more Beaver Scouts than there are any other type of scout. The youngest age range outnumbers Scouts and their membership makes Venture Scouts and Rover Scouts look decidedly niche.
Theirishscouter is firmly of the view that the indifference to the needs of teenagers in Scouting at a national level (in terms of policy-making) is a key driver in the lamentably low numbers of adolescent members and the steadily declining numbers in this age range.
As an association, we seem obsessed with ‘scouts’ (the programme section) and all the trappings associated with it (phoenix this, patrol system that, full kit inspection the other, etc.), yet the version of scouts that policy makers and scoutaholics salivate over, is so completely out of touch with modern teenagers (the people who it is supposed to be attracting), they frequently barely recognize it. Hence teens increasingly leave scouting in droves… and never return.
Whilst this is a major strategic oversight that will soon become a critical issue for the association, another real strategic opportunity exists around tapping into the vast number of younger children in the country.
The GAA, an entity that permeates every nook and cranny of life in Ireland, certainly outside Dublin, has shown it’s adeptness at many things that Scouting Ireland is unable to replicate.
Political connections, superb ability to engage with policy-makers, unrivalled corporate links, long-term vision and strong, unifying leadership all serve to create an incredible machine that goes from strength to strength.
SYNERGY MEETS STRATEGY
A key strategic aspect of this success appears to be attracting new members. It is arguable that if one begins playing GAA at (for example) age 4 (as many children do), then at a very early age, one has access to a great sport, social interaction with other kids, exercise and skill-building and quite possibly the seeds sown for a lifetime of passion and a strong sense of belonging.
This strategy delivers a result for the young person and the local club in which they become a member. Equally, it generates a positive outcome for GAA as a sport, because getting kids involved when young arguably builds passion and ultimately locks them in to a sport they love, before other pastimes and pursuits get a look in.
WOULD IT WORK IN SCOUTING?
We know a lot more about young people in Scouting than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. Whilst a four-year-old child is at a different developmental stage than (for example) a six year old, Scouting undoubtedly has the knowledge and resources to pilot a concept designed to accommodate younger people of this age within our association.
From a funding point of view, younger kids also make a great deal of sense for Scouting. Yes, the levels of supervision are higher (child to adult ratio in Beaver Scouts for example is higher than in Scouts), but the programme typically costs less to deliver.
Younger kids are also gentler on equipment, cause less wear and tear on fixtures and fittings and (certainly in scouting) pay the same registration fee and presumably the same annual subscription to their Scout group.
It can be easier to secure the services of volunteers in the younger sections too. Many (not all) scouters involved in Beaver Scouts have (or joined up when they had) a child of beaver scout age in the family. This effectively guarantees their involvement for the duration of their child’s involvement (possibly a lot longer) ensures a regular stream of volunteers and attracts a broader spread of adults into the Scout Group.
CREATING A PROGRAMME
The details of a carefully developed and calibrated youth programme would need some thought (not six years of thought, mind you) and clearly developing a new youth section would need a development period that included some pilot groups, in order to test programme, ascertain the idea worked and that it resonated with parents and Scout Groups alike.
A programme section for children aged four to six would not be for every Scout Group (no more than Rover Scouts is). It would be for Scout Groups with the sort of resources to facilitate its development in the context of a wide support network across the group. It would be for Scout Groups that are well organized, well resourced and in a position to take on another section and integrate it into the wider Scout Group.
MASS MARKET CAN WAIT
In reality, a section for four to six year olds might be appropriate for between ten and twenty percent of Scouting Ireland’s groups initially. However this is between fifty and one hundred groups. If every new section had fifteen members, it could see Scouting being opened up to one thousand, five hundred four year olds in the first year of operation.
Imagine the excitement. Imagine the sheer pleasure. Imagine all those happy faces looking forward to their weekly get-together. From a strategic perspective, imagine fifteen hundred new members beginning their potentially life-long involvement with Scouting at an age when currently, few organisations cater for their needs.
RESISTANCE TO INNOVATION
Scouting as an association moves a lot more slowly than it did when it was a movement. The fondness for bureaucracy and the silo thinking that is prevalent in the organization ensures that Scouting misses out on countless opportunities, comes to others hopelessly late and occasionally has to be dragged (kicking and screaming) towards embracing a new initiative or social dynamic.
Perhaps it is time for Scouting Ireland’s policy makers to give some active consideration to offering some great experiences and a chance to belong, to kids a little younger than our current youngest members.
Apart from the valiant efforts of ‘gentlemen of a certain generation’ in Scouting who work tirelessly to keep our association looking as unattractive and as irrelevant as possible to teenagers and young adults, the reality is that the teen and twenty-something market is in any case a crowded place and Scouting competes with many other (often vastly more attractive at first glance at least) propositions.
Is there a less crowded market opportunity staring us in the face?
LEARNING FROM LONDON
Big cities not only spread out, but also tend also to go up (in height) and down (in depth), to exploit all growth opportunities. Scouting Ireland has been trying hard to spread out (with new groups) in recent years and has achieved a lackluster, but reasonably acceptable growth rate of around 3% per annum in recent years.
The association has ‘gone up’ by introducing Rover Scouts, but has failed to follow through with a commitment to this potentially trail-blazing section and has instead turned it into another, even less successful venture section (the USP – unique selling point – appearing to be that this one is for adults, who we er, treat like kids).
Perhaps it is time for Scouting Ireland to ‘go down’ the age range to find new opportunities to engage young people? It offers the potential of a ready market, a less competitive landscape, a wildly enthusiastic potential member base, very supportive parents and a section like this would not suffer from the integration problems that Rovers (and possibly even ventures) has suffered from.
Time at least to open the debate?
*There is not a lot of information out there on the precise dates in which Beaver Scouts was introduced in Ireland, so these dates may be slightly out.