Monday, 12 February 2018

A celebrity figurehead for Guiding?

As another reality TV show wound to it’s conclusion, so it’s winner promptly became the latest social media suggestion of a potential celebrity chief for Guiding.  This was only days after the next lady due join the Royal family was the one being touted, hot on the heels of suggestions of a former Blue Peter presenter, who had succeeded a former Olympic rower, several female presenters of nature/countryside television programmes, and various suggestions before that.  The cynic in me suggests that soon the reality show winner will have been forgotten, another name suggested, and so it will continue.  And if a celebrity chief ever were to be appointed to head UK Guiding (which is a ‘big if’ given we don’t even know whether the topic is under consideration), I suspect there would be few praising whoever got such a job, no matter who it might be or whatever relevant skills and qualifications they might have for the post – that few drowned out by the flood of critics.  Regardless.


First question – why might we want a celebrity chief?  A celebrity could attract publicity to Guiding, and could give it a higher profile, especially if high profile themselves - which could encourage recruitment, especially youth recruitment.  Higher profile is likely if they chose the right celebrity – one who would be known to and attractive to all youth members (even the youngest), and who would have on-going fame amongst the youth age groups in particular over an extended period (not the classic ‘famous for 15 minutes’).  But - also someone who would present a positive image for Guiding to parents and the public, would mention Guiding at many of their public appearances whether specifically Guiding-related ones or not, and who would have the availability to attend some of the key Guiding events each year.


We would equally need someone who could do all that whilst avoiding ever doing or saying anything controversial for the tabloids to latch onto – we have to consider the age range, especially impressionable younger members – so no inappropriate behaviour, at any time.  From the experience of Scouting we can see pros and cons of being fronted by a celebrity whilst having a ‘working chief’ in the background – and a glance at the Scout social media forums confirms that the picture is mixed, with a lot of negative comment from Leaders regarding their current postholder (youth opinion is harder to discern).  This leads us onto the less positive reason for some in Guiding wanting a celebrity chief or figurehead for Guiding – simply ‘because the Scouts have got one’.  Need we copycat everything they do, and be assumed to be displaying jealousy?  Or would the pros outweigh the cons and justify that risk?


On the pro side, there is no doubt that positive publicity enhances the image and reputation of any organisation, and celebrities can bring media attention and coverage to events that wouldn’t otherwise attract it.  Media are far more likely to turn out to any event if there is guaranteed to be a celebrity appearance and photo opportunity to fill their gossip pages with, merely in exchange for mentioning the charity.  And dependent on the background of the celebrity, it may help to bring awareness of the organisation to sections of youth which can sometimes be hard to reach or to engage with, helping to kill some of the myths about the organisation being white, Christian, middle class, etc.


On the con side, though a celebrity chief could attract publicity – you wouldn’t have any choice over what sort of publicity it might be.  Ill-drafted tweets, controversial opinions, ‘wardrobe malfunctions’, ‘four-letter words’, ‘indiscretions’ – any or all would automatically be presented as ‘Guides’ chief says’ or ‘Guides’ chief does’ – whether there was any connection between what was allegedly said/done and their Guiding role, or none whatsoever, and whether it was recent or years ago.  Not all publicity is good publicity, and with anyone high-profile enough to draw media attention, all types of media attention will indeed be drawn, good and bad.  To quote Jonathan Swift “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”.  We’ve all seen the giant-size tabloid headlines and double-page spreads accusing someone in the public eye of whatever kind of inappropriate behaviour (and all failed, despite trying, to spot the single paragraph of retraction, months later, buried in the bottom corner of an inside page under a bland title!)


Nevertheless, even with a ‘celebrity chief’ you would still need to have a ‘working chief’ as well – someone to chair the meetings, to attend the County and Region events around the country, to actually take charge of the running of the organisation, to make the policy decisions, and do all the backroom work which doesn’t attract attention, but is often more important than the occasional public appearances which do.  Would you still be able to attract a sufficiently high calibre of candidate to this ‘working chief’ job, if candidates knew it would mean doing all the hard work in private, but being upstaged at public events by the celebrity who turns up for 20 minutes, signs a few autographs, says the ‘few words’ you scripted, then isn’t seen for dust?


The other thing to consider, is what you would actually be getting for your money (for of course, the celebrity’s presence would generate expense even if they themselves were giving their time for free).  How many hours a year would the celebrity be able to allocate to your cause?  If they are still active in their career then any charity commitments would have to be fitted around their working hours – and your bookings then fitted in amongst the bookings from the other causes which have already recruited the same celebrity, or may in future do so.  Would the days/times the celebrity can offer be ones Guiding could readily utilise?  Would they be willing to attend events around the UK and occasionally beyond, or only those within an hour’s travel of their home?  Then you need to consider the expenses – when attending events will they require a driver to take them to and from the venue, business class air travel or first class train?  Helicopter?  Dressing rooms?  Catering?  Accommodation?  Security?  Will they be willing to meet and chat to youth members at events – or would they need to be protected and kept apart for ‘security reasons’?  Will they be bringing staff with them, and will those staff need hospitality too?  Would they be willing to appear in Guiding uniform - or not?  Will extra admin staff be needed to deal with their correspondence and itineraries?


Then, what sort of person would we want to have, and what would we expect of them?  If you ask someone newly famous, there is the risk that their career may wane – and you end up with someone who doesn’t attract any media coverage for you, and whom younger members have not heard of.  If you ask someone more established then they are likely to already have many other charity commitments taking up what free time they can offer to volunteer work.  Also , someone more established may not currently be at a career peak – Rainbows and younger Brownies will only have heard of someone who has been high profile during the last 2-3 years, regardless what they have achieved in the past (or may achieve in the future), nor whether they are reckoned to have ongoing fame by adults.  If you choose an adventurer then it may help to promote your organisation as outdoors-based and exciting, but you risk negative headlines if the adventurer is caught taking safety shortcuts, if any accidents happen to them, or if they are caught implying hardship or jeopardy where actually there was little or none.  If you choose someone in the music or acting trades then their performances and outfits (far in the past as well as recent) are likely to be analysed in search of anything inappropriate for young children.  Sports people are famous when at the peak of their career, but careers are short and they retire comparatively young, usually to a low-profile.


Last, and perhaps most important – if we look back at some of the people who have been caught up in public scandals over the last few years – many of them are the sort of people who were or could have been approached by charities to be ambassadors.  We as an organisation have to consider very carefully who we bring into contact with our young members.  Even those who seem to be good role models may turn out to have skeletons hidden in their closets.  Is the risk of that justified by what might be gained?


Do we want a celebrity figurehead?  And if so, how do we decide on the right person, what sort of role would we be looking for them to take, and to what extent would we be willing to live with the expense and the possible consequences?

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Programmes After Dark

Here we are, an exciting new spring term.  A new year, a fresh start, a lively programme.  Problem is, outside it’s dark, it’s cold, and it could easily be raining or snowing, so for the next few weeks at least, there’s a high risk of your programme having to be mainly indoors.  And for an outdoor adventure-based organisation like ours, it’s hard to keep up the enthusiasm and keep the programmes exciting in a dusty hall now the Christmas decorations are down again.


Of course, it does mean we can give a little time to checking up on the progress – how are the girls doing with their Roundabouts/Adventure Badges/Challenge Badges/Octants?  Are there some areas where they are a little behind, are there some clauses we need to make time in the programme to cover, or to improve the balance in what we’re doing?  This year, with the programme changes coming up, we will want to ensure that all the girls get the chance to finish off the awards they are working on in the current programme, so that we can manage the transition to the new programme when the time comes, without anyone missing out. 


We can also plan ahead – teach skills ready for the summer.  Now’s the time to learn some new songs ready for the campfire season.  We can practice skills ready for the sleepovers, holidays and camps in the summer – how to pack the luggage, how to make the bed, how to wash the dishes, how to do simple cooking – yes, now is the time to practice all of that so that when the summer comes we aren’t stuck indoors learning the theory, we’re doing the practical.


It’s also a good time to work on our good turn/be prepared skills – do the girls know simple first aid, and what to do with minor accidents?  Do they know how to throw a lifeline, and other options for water rescue (especially, knowing to stay out of the water when rescuing, no matter how many swimming medals they have, to ensure one casualty doesn’t become two)?  Do they know about home safety, how to spot potential accidents and prevent them? 


There can also be scope for getting outdoors at this time of year.  Have your girls tried looking into the night sky to spot constellations, or visited an observatory, or been shown the night sky by an astronomy enthusiast?  Have they ever looked at animal tracks in snow or mud, made plaster casts of them, tried to identify them?  Is there a countryside ranger or nature club who would be willing to take your unit out to see nocturnal animals?  Have you done torchlit trails using glow sticks, old CDs or tinfoil cake cases on strings?  Have you done wide games in local streets, using the codes on street lamps, or nearby lanes and alleys as a playground?  Have you tried lighting a fire and cooking on it – if you have a car park or slabbed area outside your hall then you can use a metal colander or a foil ‘disposable’ barbecue foil tray on a couple of bricks, as a container to build your fire in.


Because it’s a time of year when people are inclined to hibernate – try to build some exercise and fitness into your programmes.  Outings could be to a swimming pool or skating rink.  You could have a dance session, or a gymnastics session.  Why not recreate some of the winter Olympics sports indoors – could you create a version of skiing, skating, ice hockey, curling? 


And of course, there are lots of festivals during the spring which we can use to bring colour and international interest to our programmes.  So much so that the only one we should mark every year is, of course, Thinking Day – as for the rest, why not try some different ones this year, and give the ‘usual’ ones a rest for once – they’ll be so much fresher if you leave them until next year!

Friday, 29 December 2017

Presents for the unit?

Whether it’s selection boxes at Christmas, chocolate eggs at Easter, gifts at the end-of-summer-term outing, or ‘I turned up’ badges – a custom has grown up in the last decade or so in some units of giving not just Christmas cards, but also actual presents to all the girls.  Sometimes the Leaders buy them out of their own pocket, sometimes the unit bank funds are raided.  And I am referring to direct gifts – not crafts which the girls have made for themselves, nor the prizes from the party games the girls competed in, nor badges for challenges tackled or for skills learned as part of an activity.  Gifts for having been a member of the unit at that time of year, or for having turned up to a unit activity - and for no other reason.  The unnecessary optional extras.  Nice, quite possibly, but 100% optional.


What could be controversial about such a nice gesture? 


First up is the funding question.  As volunteers, we should not be out of pocket for our Guiding hobby – so no expenses should ever come out of our own pockets, and the unit accounts should reflect the full cost of running the unit with all the expenses included (however minor).  So legally, anything you donate to the unit must be listed in the unit accounts as a donation, it should never be ‘off the record’.  The other aspect is that you, personally, may currently be in a position to fund gifts to the girls, and you may choose to do so.  But if you start such a custom, then you are setting a precedent for the years to come, and an expectation that the girls and their folks will then automatically expect presents every time.  What might that mean if your circumstances change, or for whoever succeeds you as unit Leader, whose financial circumstances may be quite different to yours?  They may be in the embarrassing position of ‘just managing’ financially, but be in no position to buy unnecessary extras for other people’s children without a second thought.  And what if we use the unit funds for presents instead?  Well, we are an educational charity, and the unit’s funds are donated (by the parents and potentially by others) specifically to support Guiding’s educational aims.  Books and resources for activities are easily justifiable as contributing to those educational aims, as is the hall rent, the games and craft equipment we will use for the unit’s educational activities, minor prizes for competitions used to promote fair play and good sportsmanship amongst the girls, and badges which the girls have earned by learning new and useful skills – yes, all of that can be justified as legitimate expenditure on educational activity.  But – would all of the parents be happy for the unit funds they have raised to be spent on things which were purely gifts, issued to all without anything particular or specific done to earn them?  Not necessarily.  Even if the presents themselves were practical ones.


Next is scale.  At what point does a token gesture (something costing less than £1 per head, perhaps twice a year) actually start to add up to quite a bit in terms of amount spent, size of present given, frequency of gifting?  Even something which is only £1 – becomes £1 x 24 or more dependent on the size of the unit . . . potentially multiplied by several times per year . . . and starts to become a very significant sum indeed . . .


Then there is expectation.  If it becomes a custom that these gifts are given, and the girls start to expect them – then do they continue to actually be a treat or surprise, are they still seen as something special?  Or do they risk becoming merely ‘the usual’, something taken for granted, something only noticed if absent (or perhaps not even then)?  As you’re handing them over, are the girls thrilled with enthusiasm at what they are getting - or is there just a row of hands held out to receive whatever it happens to be, with few mumbling thanks, and some barely noticing what they are getting at all?  Are badges prized if the girls do not have to do anything in particular to earn them – or even aren’t sure what they are for?  Or is it only the ones which involved hard work over a period of time before they were earned?  Two weeks after getting them, can the girls remember what the badge was for, or what they did to earn it?  Did they take care to put it in a safe place, or is it already mislaid or forgotten about?


Of course, then comes the ‘Joneses’ question.  If your unit is one of several units in the area, but is known to be ‘the one which gives the presents’ does that attract girls to your unit solely or mainly for that reason, at the expense of other units?  Or does it put pressure on other units to find money for presents too, even if that might have to be at the expense of trimming their programmes?  We can’t always change what we do solely because of consideration for the neighbouring units, and in many circumstances shouldn’t - but we can pause to give them some thought when reaching decisions , especially if neighbouring units to us are in less well-off areas – we don’t always have to act “The Joneses” - even if we can.


Finally, there are the ‘principle’ questions.  One of the key principles of Guiding is ‘thinking of others before ourselves’.  So our focus in our unit activities is normally on giving to others, and we were long encouraged to do extra good turns for others at times like Easter and Christmas, in a sense to almost to make up for all the things we would soon be receiving.  If our focus is meant to be on encouraging the girls to be putting others and their thoughts/feelings first, and learning the pleasure of giving rather than receiving, does it not smack a bit of “don’t do as I do, do as I say” if it’s regularly ‘presents for ourselves’ time again?

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Launching The New Programme - or 1966-68 all over again?

Although it will affect my units as much as it will anyone else’s, as someone who has been through a section’s programme change more than once, it is interesting to sit back and watch the reactions of other people to the new programme each time more details are released.


Anyone who has studied ‘change management’ would find that every textbook reaction has been present.  There are people who are ‘immediately anti’ all suggested changes, often asking why it can’t be left alone, or suggesting the founders would have opposed the idea of change (on no evidence).  I’ve seen the content of the handbooks rubbished, and the price declared excessive – even though no information has yet been given on what size the handbooks will be, nor what they will contain (they are, after all, currently being written).  We also have people saying ‘it won’t work for my unit’ – despite not having a clear idea of what ‘it’ will be or how much flexibility it will have (and equally, judging only by their unit’s current membership/situation, which may change in future).


If we want parallels, we could do worse than look back to 1966-68.  That was the last time Guiding changed all the section programmes radically and simultaneously.  And interestingly – it happened just over 50 years after Guiding started – and this current set of changes is happening exactly 50 years after that.  (Sure, there have been radical changes to the individual Sections’ programmes in-between, but only one Section at a time, not all in one go).  At that time they changed the uniforms, the Promise and the programmes for each section – radically.  So what insights are there from the 1966-68 experience?


Well, let’s start with the youngest section.  In this case not Rainbows, because they did not exist in the 1960s, thus Brownies.  They had a programme of fixed tests which every Brownie in the UK had to tackle – Tenderfoot (the work new recruits did pre-Promise), and Golden Bar (a set list of challenges, all of which had to be fully completed as written to earn the badge).  Once a Brownie had gained Golden Bar, the original next step was to work for the highest Brownie award, Golden Hand.  It was only once you had gained Golden Hand that you were permitted to work on Proficiency Badges – and only if you gained Golden Hand before your eleventh birthday would you earn the ‘Brownie Wings’ badge which allowed you to ‘fly up’ to Guides – if you didn’t gain it by that deadline you couldn’t do Interest Badges, and you would ‘walk up’ to Guides without a wings badge to put on your Guide uniform.  Because a significant proportion of girls weren’t achieving Golden Hand, it meant that they automatically earned nothing beyond Golden Bar - so in the 1950s an intermediate award, ‘Golden Ladder’ was introduced, to reward those who achieved certain Golden Hand clauses – and Brownies with Golden Ladder were permitted to gain a limited number of Proficiency Badges only.  In reality, most Brownies completed Golden Hand just before ‘flying up’ to Guides, so few Brownies gained many Proficiency badges at all for want of time, even where they had the ability to pass the tests.


In 1968 the Brownie programme was altered so that there would be a challenge to work towards for each of the three years they would be in the Brownie unit – these challenges were called ‘journeys’, with the first being named ‘Footpath’, the second ‘Road’, and the third ‘Highway’.  There were eight topic sections to complete for each one, with each journey being designed to take around 12 months to complete.  Brownies could also work on Interest Badges immediately after they had gained their Promise, practicing them at home, then being assessed by an independent tester.  For each of the journey topics there was a choice of set challenges plus the option for the Leader to set an alternative challenge designed to be challenging for that particular Brownie, whether harder or easier.  Later the ‘adventure’ programme was introduced, but still with the idea of a badge being gained within each particular timeframe, and of the badges being accessible to all who attended regularly, and participated in unit activities.


The pre-1966 Guide programme had similarities to the Brownie one – they too had had a Tenderfoot challenge for new recruits; once they had made their Promise the Guides worked for Second Class badge, and then for First Class.  Despite the encouragement in the handbook that no Guide should be satisfied to remain Second Class, the statistics show that most did not progress beyond Second Class – the First Class completion rate tended to hover around the 10-20% rate at most.  Those who achieved First Class could work for higher awards such as All-Round-Cords.  Guides who held Second Class could work for Proficiency Badges - perhaps this served as an alternative to First Class for those unlikely to attain it?  Most of the teaching for Tenderfoot and Second Class was done by the Patrol Leaders, ideally as part of practical Patrol activities, with only final assessment being done by the Guiders.  From 1946 onwards there was also the ‘highest award’ – “Queen’s Guide”.


Post-1968, the Guides, like the Brownies, had annual badges to work for.  These were initially coloured Trefoils – yellow, green, red and then blue.  Again, there were eight topic sections to complete for each one, and the handbook provided suggestions for challenges, but again allowed the Leader to set a personal challenge instead of these.  This did, however, mean that there weren’t set topics for Patrol Leaders to teach or Patrols to include in their programmes.  The highest reward remained Queen’s Guide until 1983 (when Queen’s Guide was moved to become a Senior Section award, and Baden-Powell award introduced in it’s place).  As with Brownies, proficiency badges could now be earned immediately after Tenderfoot completion.  Later the Trefoils were replaced by the current annual Challenge Badges, but the aim remained that the majority of individuals would complete them at regular intervals by taking part in the regular unit programme.


For Rangers, pre-1968 the ‘Senior Branch’ as it was known, consisted eventually of 4 separate sections.  The biggest grouping were the Land Rangers, then Sea Rangers, and the smallest group, Air Rangers.  The fourth group were the Cadets, who were training with the aim of becoming Leaders.  Each of these groups wore a different uniform to each other, and followed a different programme, but in essence they too had Tenderfoot challenges, then worked on a general challenge which could be compared to a Second-class type badge, and then on specialist certificates or awards related to their section.  The Sea Rangers focussed on practical boating and sailing theory, weather, astronomy, navigation, trade, cargoes, and sea lore – and the Air Rangers on aviation knowledge, aircraft design, weather, astronomy, navigation and trade.  Land Rangers focussed on the land-based activities – outdoors adventure on the land, service in the community, etc.  Cadets were focussed on leadership training and worked in Brownie or Guide units, as well as belonging to a Cadet Company.  Each was essentially a separate section within Senior Branch.


In 1968, Land Rangers, Sea Rangers, Air Rangers and Cadets were all abolished.  In their place came the “Ranger Guide Service Section”.  Ranger Guide Service Section Units now had to follow a generalist programme, built around eight subject sections, and with ‘Service Stars’ to earn.  Whilst units could continue to take an interest in nautical or aviation activities, this had to be as a sideline part of their programme, and not as a main or sole focus.  (As a result, in some areas breakaway Sea Ranger groups emerged, some of which still exist).  In 1973, the Young Leader Scheme was launched – perhaps a suggestion that closing down Cadets had been hasty?


So pre-1968, each section had set challenges which were the same for every member in the country, meaning they all learned the same skills.  Although all gained their tenderfoot and most gained their Golden Bar/Second Class, and the majority would then go on to gain Golden Hand/First Class, in reality significant numbers of Brownies did not gain Golden Hand, and the majority of Guides did not gain First Class.  Post 1968 there was more flexibility in the challenges, such that most members gained their annual badge mainly through participating in the regular unit programme.  But there were higher awards for the older sections (Queen’s Guide, Baden-Powell Award, Duke of Edinburgh Award, Commonwealth Award) for the ‘high flyers’. 


The 1966-68 changes were preceded by a written report produced by a working group, entitled “Tomorrow’s Guide”.  They had made many proposals, each of which was considered in the creation of the revised programme.  There was a national ‘launch day’ upon which the handbooks for every member were to be delivered in locally-arranged special ceremonies.  (Unfortunately, it appears there were last minute delays, meaning that in some areas the books did not arrive in time for the ceremonies, a source of much complaint in the next issue of “The Guider” magazine . . .


Of the programme changes themselves, in looking at magazines from the era, the group most upset by the changes is clearly the Senior Branch.  There were bits and pieces of objection to the loss of fixed tests from the Brownie and Guide sections, with Leaders concerned about what would replace them and how it could be managed at meetings, and some uniform change objections, but in general these complaints were comparatively mild, and balanced by those who were positive about having more flexibility, and there being potential achievements which were attainable for those who were not natural ‘Golden Hand/First Class Candidates’. Overall, those who took the time to write to the magazine expressing pleasure or satisfaction with the new Brownie and Guide programmes seemed to balance or outnumber the objections regarding those sections. That was not the case for Senior Branch, with many Leaders convinced that the loss of the air and sea specialisms would spell the overnight permanent death of both their unit, and potentially of the Section itself.  The loss of Cadets would see Leader recruitment plummet.  Breakaways were threatened – a few of which came to pass, with the formation of the Sea Ranger Association, which still exists in the form of around 15 groups mainly in southern England.


So, then as now, the patient who got the most radical surgery – was the Ranger.  Why the Rangers?  I suspect, numbers and retention.  In Guiding, the one section which has consistently failed to attract the number of members it should, is the Ranger age group.  Dropout rates between Guides and Rangers have always been large, throughout it’s history.  Hence, numerous attempts to tweak or massively reconstruct the Ranger programme in order to make it more attractive, more productive, or whatever the current weakness in it was reckoned to be.  Specialist units like ‘Seas’ did seek to attract the adventure-seekers, but depended for their survival on the unit having access to good sailing facilities and appropriate boats to use upon them during the boating season, Leaders having both the nautical qualifications to run the water activities programme properly and teach the key skills – but just as important, the imagination to keep the unit keen during the winter months when most of the time would be spent on boat maintenance and nautical theory, with little practical sailing/canoeing/rowing feasible for several months depending on weather conditions.  Air Ranger units really needed to have access to regular gliding or flying tuition, so the girls could get the chance to do some actual flying – not just spend months learning the theory and making models. 


There have been times when the idea has been to make the Ranger programme very educational, with proficiency badges, lecture topics, encouraging the unit members to register as a team for voluntary work, etc.  There are times when they have tried to make the programme more leisure-based, encouraging handicrafts and sports and productive pastimes.  There are times when they have tried to focus on awards, challenges, and attainment.  They have tried all of these approaches over the years - and have tended to get broadly similar recruitment and retention results regardless of which approach was being tried!  Within that age group there are some girls who want to achieve – they want to put time and effort into earning high awards, arranging lively programmes of activities, seeking out service projects and international opportunities.  And there are some who want a warm, safe venue to meet up with friends for a coffee, with a simple activity to do whilst they chat.  Only a programme which recognises both types of girl, and caters for them, will stand a chance of attracting the majority of Guides to move up at 14, with the assurance that they will find what they are looking for in Rangers whatever that may be – and will keep a steady flow of them moving up each year, not a clique of pals once every few years . . .


Human beings have a natural, instinctive reaction to change.  And that instinctive reaction is - to resist it.  The familiar things, which they have grumbled about, and picked faults in time and again – are suddenly near-perfect, with no need for any alteration whatsoever, the minute change is threatened - and the new plan being introduced is bound to be a backwards step, ill thought-through, expensive, unnecessary - right up until the time when it has been in place for a year or two, and is starting to be thought of as the norm . . .

Monday, 6 November 2017

Celebrating Festivals


That brings a twofold problem.  If we celebrate a number of these international/multicultural festivals in addition to the UK ones we might regularly mark anyway, rather than instead of – do we risk having a programme which simply lurches straight from one festival to another, with little gap between for other topics to be covered and other skills taught?  Or, are there some traditional festivals which we tend to mark every year, but actually could quite reasonably either mark very briefly, or not at all?  Need we always mark Easter, and Hallowe’en, and Christmas, or devote an entire meeting to any of them - if every other club and school is covering them anyway, not to mention the fact the girls will likely do so at home too in many cases?  Is there something original or different that we do at these traditional festivals or is it just much the same things the girls are doing elsewhere?  (Do they need or want every club for three full weeks before Easter/Christmas to abandon all regular programmes in favour of non-stop craft, food and parties?)  Might the child who doesn’t have both a father and a mother on the scene be glad to get a break from mother’s day/father’s day publicity for an hour or so?)  Can it be a balanced and varied programme if we mark the same festivals every single year, in some cases for several meetingsin a row, in a similar way every year?


And as we consider whether to broaden our unit’s horizons, and help the girls think more internationally and more diversely - we then hit the second big problem - our lack of knowledge about the origin and meaning of some of these international festivals which we might opt to mark.  Which means we do run the risk of making mistakes, and causing offence, through that lack of background knowledge and understanding about the origins of the customs in question.  For the thing is, with the familiar festivals we don’t really have that problem.  We’ve grown up with them around us whether our families did much to mark them or not - so we automatically know which ones can be celebrated in a silly/frivolous way without many people minding ‘children having their fun’ – santas and reindeer, dressing up as St George or the dragon, serving ‘mock haggis and neeps’ whilst wearing bin-bag kilts etc.  But we also know which ones ought to have a more respectful approach, giving thought and consideration to sensitive feelings and beliefs - like Easter, or Remembrance, or hallowe’en.  But when it comes to festivals from other countries or cultures, we may not be so clued up on which ones can be marked in silly ways, and which ones could offer scope for significant  offence if we were to misjudge tone.  In the UK we might make poppy crafts in early November – but we wouldn’t have a ‘poppy party’, and we would be very wary of ‘re-enacting’ a remembrance ceremony with people dressed up in costumes and carrying improvised flags and mock wreaths, wouldn’t we?  And yet – nowhere is it actually written down what is and what is not an appropriate way to teach children about remembrance, so someone in another country or from another culture coming across scanty details about ‘this festival that happens in Britain where the people all wear bright red flowers and take part in big parades through their towns with marching bands and flags’ - could easily misjudge the tone of event, form a mental picture of ‘celebration parade’ rather than ‘sombre procession’.  How easy it would be for such a misinterpretaion to be made . . . 


So before planning to mark a festival with your unit, please, do as much research as possible about the background to both how the people celebrate it, and more importantly, why they celebrate it.  Do not rely on online information from children’s activity sites or from books about worldwide festivals, unless it is also backed up by authoritative sources.  Speak to someone who is actually from the relevant country/culture/religion, to find out not just ‘what the locals do’ but why they do it, what significance or message lies behind the things that are done, what is the atmosphere or mood?  Find out which parts are solemn or very meaningful, and which parts might be taken more lightheartedly.  Would the person from that country/culture/religion think it an appropriate event for the children to mark at all, and if so, how might children from that culture or country mark it – and what would be appropriate or inappropriate for children here to do?


Whatever sort of event you mark or celebrate – please also think cultural appropriateness, not cultural appropriation.  Make sure you stay on the right side of the line between marking and mocking.  Be aware of sensitive cultural traditions, and try to be both authentic and respectful - especially of native or cultural art, music, dance and traditional customs/lore.  Seek to understand and then explain ‘why’ to the children, rather than risk it merely being seen as ‘this weird custom they do in this faraway place for some unknown reason’.  There is lots to learn about the world around us and the range of cultures and belief systems followed by the people who share it - if we approach with an open enquiring attitude, and a desire to learn, understand and appreciate.  But before we can teach the girls, first we must take time to learn the background information for ourselves . . . 


And – keep festivals in their place.  As something we occasionally utilise as an excuse for the educational activities we would like to do to broaden the girls’ horizons.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Sectional Silos

Once upon a time, I was attending a District meeting.  And there were two key items on the agenda, the same hardy perennials we discussed every year.  One was girl retention, especially when changing section.  The other was organising the District summer outings for each section - the Rainbows’, the Brownies’, and the Guides’ outings (we don’t currently have a Senior Section unit covering our area although we’re hoping to have one soon).  You’ve probably got much the same agenda each spring yourselves.
We are losing girls between sections, even though all the units meet in the same premises (on different days/times from each other).  We suspect that one of the barriers to transition is ‘the unknown’.  Moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from being big fish in small pond to small fish in big pond.  A lot of girls opt not to even give the next section a try – and this seems to apply across all units and all sections, and over many years despite variations in unit leadership and programmes.  Although we try to use the official transition packs and the units are encouraged to do preparation work in-unit, it doesn’t alter the fact that leakage has proved hard to reduce.
And of course, each section also has ideas about what sort of outings they want for their section – for both Rainbow units, for all three Brownie units, and for both Guide units.  And though we haven’t many Senior Section age members currently, we wanted to try and cater for those who are or are about to be Senior Section in some way, so they aren’t “just Young Leaders”, but get to spend at least part of their time as participants.  So there were thoughts about visits to the seaside, or to places of interest, or to public parks with facilities, etc.
And - we suddenly realised just how silly we were being!  Would you believe it, we had these two topics down as separate items on the agenda!
Yes, on the one hand we were talking of problems with transition and linking up the sections, then immediately after we were due to plan entirely separate outings for each Section!  Keeping each age group strictly in their own little silo!  When the logical solution to both questions - would be to have a ‘juniors outing’ for all the 5-8 year olds, a ‘middles outing’ for all the 9-11 year olds, and a ‘seniors outing’ for all the 12+ age group – cutting right across the section boundaries.  If we had these outings on separate dates then none of the Leaders need be involved in more than 2 out of 3 outings, and it would mean the older girls in each section getting to meet and mix with some of those closest in age from the next section, but not the ‘big scary ones’.  That way, come transition time, there would be some familiar faces amongst both the girls and the Leaders from the next section - and the Leaders from the different sections would get to know each other a bit better too.  Also, if the units had all their Leaders present, but some only had half their girls attending, that would leave some Leaders spare to help with doing some of the central work such as organising the activities or catering, serving as central first aider, or providing extra help with the younger girls – while still getting to see their own unit some of the time.  We could choose activities that were targeted to the particular age group, we could get the girls all mixing regardless of their section boundaries, and we could look at some of the activities from Pot of Gold/Brownies Go For It/Move on Up if we wished, as part of the programmes for the days.  It would give the younger girls experience of slightly more challenging activities than they normally get at their units, of the sort the next section would tackle - and would mean there were some girls in the next section who were friends, not just ‘big and scary’.
All this educational value available to us so easily, before we even start to think about where the outings might go to or what the actual activities might be, all for a slight change of thinking, and a willingness to try something a little different.  I wonder what other silos we have unwittingly been slipping into, just out of habit, or from not spotting the links staring us in the face, when there would be real benefits to us stepping back occasionally to see the bigger picture and check it still shows what we think it does?  What other things have we been doing for no better reason than “we always have”, without us stopping to wonder why, consider whether they are still serving a purpose (whether the original purpose or another worthwhile one) - or whether we would be far better to alter or drop them?
So I thought I’d throw a challenge out to others.  Why not start by creating a list of the ‘Town Events’ or ‘County/Division/District Events’ or local customs you have each year.  Then step back and try to look at each one as if viewing it with a fresh eye.  If you were starting from a blank sheet of paper, is this an event which you would choose to invent, or choose to start participating in (whether in the same way you currently do or in another way) - or not?  What, realistically, are it’s pros and it’s cons?  Do you regularly do the same/similar things (whether several times a year, or every year, or in a rotation, it’s still repetition), and has that been reviewed recently?  What educational value does it have now, and are there any things you could do to enhance it’s value by either small tweaks or more radical changes?  To what extent do the girls enjoy it – are they keen to participate, or is enthusiasm low?  If it is billed as a joint event – is it truly joint, with girls from different units actually mingling and mixing with each other, and perhaps those form other organisations too - throughout the event – or are they spending a day doing activities with just their unit, at a venue which is coincidentally hosting other units who happen to be doing similar activities - the only contact between members of the groups occurring by chance in the toilet or lunch queues, not as part of any planned activities at all?  What involvement do the girls have in choosing, planning and preparing – is there girl-led Guiding, or do the adults arrange it all and the girls just ‘turn up and do’?  If you have a regular District or Division competition, is it flexible enough to be fun and interesting and varied each time it’s held, or is it the same thing every year, which girls and Leaders alike find increasingly dull or inconvenient?  (Often it can be easier to have a regular ‘inter-unit’ competition, but with the unit Leaders agreeing each year what topic to compete on, rather than being stuck with having to organise a swimming gala, or make scrapbooks or whatever, every year whether convenient or not, whether popular or not).  Is it a fun and light-hearted contest run in a good spirit - or does it create rivalries, arguments, or is always won by the ‘usual suspects’ regardless of how hard others try?  And finally – how do the adults feel about it?  Is it a pleasure or a burden?  Something they look forward to, or a major inconvenience and barrier to progressing on the activities they want to tackle with their units?  Has it gone from the intended one day a year effort, and become something that units spend ages practicing and preparing for?
The thing about silos is – a silo is not a fully-sealed-up container.  Every silo has small hatch doors in order for it to be both filled, and emptied.  Do you leave your silo hatches wide open – or kept bolted firmly shut?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Right girls, I've decided . . .?

Children nowadays have a lot less independence than they used to have.  Most don’t get to play outside until the street lights come on, most are ferried to school by car rather than walking there and back.  Free time is spent either in organised classes or in the house.  I’m not interested in getting into an argument about whether the past was the good old days of freedom, or indeed, whether they were eras when neglected children were left to roam wild, for that is a whole other argument.  Though it had it’s downsides, one upside was that children had to learn to be self-reliant.  They had to work out ways to occupy themselves, often relying on their own imagination in the absence of many ‘bought’ toys, because the adults didn’t organise their entertainment for them.  If they had a problem, they had to solve it for themselves initially, there wasn’t an adult on the spot to step in and take charge.   In these modern times when many children don’t go anywhere without their mobile phone connecting them directly to adults, are ferried everywhere by car rather than ever walking by themselves, spend increasing amounts of time in the house playing alone rather than being outdoors with neighbouring children – their scope for self-reliance has been massively eroded.  Many children today have little experience of making decisions unaided and then living with the consequences, or of having to use their imagination to occupy themselves and others in the absence of many toys or gadgets, of being part of a gang of friends who live near each other and play together most evenings and learn to get on or not as the case may be - because most of their friends or potential friends are either away at hobby sessions every afternoon and evening, or in their own houses – if they aren’t themselves.  Hence the default reaction for most of the children to any problem which arises – is to look to the nearest adult to deal with it for them, and if there isn’t an adult at hand, then the sole thought is to find one as soon as possible. 


What does that mean for us as Leaders in Guiding?  Well, it means that we have to be aware of this change, and of the implications for our programmes.  We can be faced with children, (and yes, sometimes with parents too) who genuinely struggle to handle being told that they have to choose whether to sew badges on the uniform, and if they do choose to, they have to choose for themselves whereabouts – because we do not supply diagrams or guidance, and we do not tell them what choice to make.  We demand that they decide for themselves.  They are shocked, they are surprised, and yes, some are genuinely frightened.  Why is it that Guiding makes this demand, when some parents would clearly prefer to be told what to do?  Simply because it is actually a decision with very few long-term implications.  If they try a layout and it doesn’t work – the badges can easily be unpicked and moved.  The decision they make needn’t be permanent or even semi-permanent, it is in every sense, a small decision.  But – if you practice making small decisions, if you become accustomed to making them regularly, it will make it easier when the bigger decisions of life come along which do have significant impacts.  Today, decide whether to sew the County badge on the sleeve of your Guide hoody or on a camp blanket.  Tomorrow, decide whether to hang out with the popular crowd from school even though you often aren’t comfortable with what they do?  Yes, that could easily be.


If the girls are so unused to making any decisions for themselves, does it matter?  Well yes, I’d say it does, because I reckon decision making is an important life skill which everyone needs to develop from an early age.  Life is always going to be full of choices both big and small, insignificant and life-changing – small ones like which clothes to put on this morning, what to have for breakfast, whether to walk or take the bus, whether you will need a raincoat/umbrella or not – lots of small everyday choices we all have to make with small implications.  But life also throws up bigger choices – what subjects to study at school in order to stand a chance of starting a particular type of career, what line of work to aim for, how much time to devote to studying for exams, what to do on leaving school whether study or job-hunting, whether to drink alcohol or not, whether to take drugs or not, when to leave home, who to live with and where, what sort of home to rent/buy, whether to get married, whether to have children – lots of big and important decisions which will have long-lasting implications - whether you make what turns out to be the right choice, or what turns out to be the wrong one.  So I take the view that the more practice we can let the girls have at making small choices unaided from a young age, and learning to cope with the outcomes of those small decisions - the better able to cope they will be when the big decisions of life start to come along, all too soon.  And – their turn at being adults is coming.  Won’t be long before, in the lines of that classic internet tale, they look around for an adult to deal with the problem - and suddenly realise that actually, they are the only adult in the room, and everyone’s looking to them to decide what the group should do about it!


What can we do to help?  The answer is simple.  Hand over as much of the decision making in our units to the girls as we can, so they get practice at discussing pros and cons, handling disagreements or varied opinions, reaching a conclusion, enacting it, and seeing how it works out.  It can start very simply, at the Rainbow stage, which is meant to be 10% girl-led.  Shall we play game A, or would you prefer game B?  Why not let the Rainbows vote sometimes, rather than always just deciding it for them?  We’ve got a new helper starting next week who will need a Rainbow name.  Could the Rainbows suggest the ideas for the shortlist the helper chooses from?  We’re having a party next week - should it be uniform, party clothes, or fancy dress – what do they think?  And of course, there are Roundabout activities to choose, and lots of scope there for offering the girls choices and encouraging them to think about, and voice, opinions, ideas, preferences.  After all, even nowadays, little girls all too often aren’t encouraged to speak up for themselves and express their opinions – and when they do speak up, they don’t always have their ideas and opinions listened to properly or heeded – can Rainbow meetings be an exception to that?  By Brownie age they can be taking on more responsibility in the unit, indeed as much as 25% – choosing activities from the Adventure book, or coming up with ideas for the unit programme.  Having some say about which girls they want to share a room with on Brownie holiday – and perhaps which ones they don’t.  Doing activities as a Six, and having an active Sixer who has genuine responsibility for the girls in her Six and the activities the Six does.  Planning some activities, and having occasional Sixer-run nights.  Having regular Pow Wows or other activities which collect and utilise their ideas, showing that those ideas are listened to, genuinely considered, and acted upon in some way if they can’t be completely followed through.  For if the girls’ suggestions are regularly just snubbed or ignored, they’ll soon stop offering them - and it’s hard to regain that trust once it has been lost.


By Guide age there should be a rapid expansion in delegation, with Guides meant to be 50% girl-led – Patrol Meetings, Patrol-organised GFIs, Guides choosing which Patrol to belong to in the unit, and organising Patrol meetings and activities.  Girls encouraged to consider working for Baden-Powell Award, Commonwealth Award, Patrol Camp Permit, Community Action Badge etc.  As well as unit activities, there should be opportunities to go to large-scale camps in the UK and attend International Selections for camps abroad, Patrol Leader Trainings, Scout & Guide Orchestra and other outwith-unit opportunities.  And for Senior Section?  It’s 75% girl led, but really, limits do not exist.  Youth Parliaments, Guiding Forums, Senior Section Groups, SSAGO, POLARIS, DofE, Leadership Training, Adult Leader Qualifications, voting in national elections, GOLD, gap-year activities – loads of ways to become involved in decision making, become involved in making a difference in the community, wide horizons.  Lets make the girl-led ratios for each section be meaningful.


Yes, in the space of 10 years in Guiding from 5 to 15, we can, and we should, take the girls in our units right through from simply choosing between game A and game B, to planning and running a weekend camp for themselves without any adult aid, or working on a major challenge scheme, or actively campaigning for causes they believe in, or seeking to learn more about the world they live in and their place as active citizens in it.  But – all of this entirely depends on us being brave.  Brave enough to step back and let the girls make as many decisions as possible, large and small.  Yes, it may be that they take 20 minutes to discuss, argue, and reach a verdict on something you could have decided for them in 2 minutes flat with 115 seconds to spare.  But that 20 minutes isn’t wasted if it’s time invested in learning the life-skills of discussing, persuading, bargaining, seeking compromise and consensus, listening to alternative views, reaching a conclusion.  Yes, in the end they may choose what we reckon to be the ‘wrong’ option – but will it turn out to be the wrong option?  And even if it does, will they learn more from experiencing the mistake and it’s consequences, than from being protected from any adversity or consequence? . . .  Yes, from choosing between game A or B right through to being a national representative in a Youth Parliament, it is Leaders like you and I who can provide the guidance and experience and opportunities that open up the path for the girls to confidently handle difficult decisions, and argue capably for the things they believe in and against the things they don’t.  Or – we can take the easy option, make all the unit decisions ourselves, and just have the girls ‘turn up and do’.


What prompted this thought?  A discussion on a forum asking how people sort out the Patrols for Guide camp.  I was shocked to see that the vast majority of the Leaders who commented - would either sort the Patrols by themselves with no input sought from the Guides at all – or would only allow each Guide to submit a couple of names of people they would like to be beside, requests which may or may not be granted dependent on whether their choices happened to suit the Leaders’ plans for the Patrols or not.  There were only 2 or 3 amongst over 30 who even considered letting the Guides try to sort the groups amongst themselves if they could do so amicably.  Most were absolutely certain that their Guides couldn’t be trusted to sort out fair groups without adult interference, and would be sure to end up with some Patrols formed of cliques of pals, and the others containing all those who were not in the clique.  So much for girl-led Guiding!