Can the Scouts movement survive after the pandemic?

Lockdowns trigger sharp drop in young members and adult volunteers

Bear Grylls, chief scout
Bear Grylls is chief scout of the Scout Association
(Image credit: Ben Gurr/AFP via Getty Images)

The survival of the Scouts movement could be at stake after it lost more volunteers and members in the last year than at any time since the outbreak of the Second World War.

Covid lockdowns and the pressures of the pandemic took their toll on membership of the Scouts, as the number of youth members dropped by a quarter, from 480,083 to 362,752. The number of adult volunteers also saw a significant decline, falling from 156,000 in 2020 to just under 141,000 this year.

The drop in members is the largest since 1941, when the number of Scouts fell from 394,615 in 1938 to 284,678 as the impact of the war began to hit the UK, reports the Daily Mail.

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During the pandemic Scouts leaders delivered more than 1.2 million hours of virtual meetings over Zoom, according to chief executive Matt Hyde writing for Third Sector, as well as launching initiatives like remote camps, with members pitching tents in their back gardens and joining online singalongs.

But areas with the longest lockdowns such as the north-west, Wales and Northern Ireland have seen the “biggest losses of involvement”. The organisation is concerned that “people in more deprived areas with less access to IT are likely to be hardest to bring back”, The Guardian says.

As the pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted, young people are coming back to the Scouts in “big numbers”, writes Hyde, but a lack of adult volunteers is hampering the drive to get children and young people back into the Scouts, with more than 70,000 young people currently on the waiting list.

The Scouts are launching a drive to recruit 5,000 adult volunteers to plug the gap left by the 15,000 who left during the pandemic, as well as encouraging young people who drifted away from Scouts over the past year to rejoin. The campaign #GoodForYou will highlight how giving time to the Scouts can support volunteers’ “skills, health and happiness, family and community”, says The Scout Association.

It will also create 66 jobs for young adults through the Government’s Kickstarter programme, and new team members will work as development officers to support Scouts groups to welcome new members.

The decline in numbers has come after a period of strong growth for the Scouts movement, whose membership rose by almost 200,000 between 2006 and 2020.

“We understand that our health and families must come first, but losing members of the Scouts family is so heartbreaking,” writes Bear Grylls, who has been chief scout since 2009, on The Independent. “When volunteers move on, young people miss out. Now, as the vaccine programme continues to roll out in the most remarkable way, this is our moment to build back better.”

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.