Many surveys done within various youth organisations in many countries have all reached the exact same conclusion. Keeping existing youth members is far easier than recruiting new youth members into the group, especially for teenagers. If we accept that premise, it becomes logical that after all the effort we put into recruiting girls into Guiding in the younger age groups, we should be seeking to do all we realistically can to encourage these girls to stay in Guiding for as long as possible. Right through to Senior Section certainly, and if possible on to adult roles of whichever kind best suits – Unit Helper, Leader, Commissioner, Adviser, Trefoil Guild etc.
But – only a small proportion of the girls who join Guiding at 5 or 7 are still in it at 14, far less beyond that. And although a certain amount of loss is inevitable – in the UK our losses are far higher than can be explained by that alone. And these losses tend not to happen equally across the age ranges, but peak at certain key points in a girl’s Guiding career – the transitions. For in the UK, we don’t have girls bridging whilst remaining members of the same unit. Changing section in the UK means changing unit, and almost always means a new Leader team, a different day and/or a different time – and sometimes a different venue too.
At 7 – the move from Rainbows to Brownies. We don’t notice this one so much, because a lot of girls join Brownies direct who were not Rainbows. Nevertheless, it isn’t every Rainbow that joins Brownies, though it ought to be close to. Perhaps we are losing more girls than we realise, at this early stage?
At 10 – this is a big gap – girls who stick right through Brownies and seem to enjoy it - but don’t even give Guides a try. In a few cases it’s lack of an available unit (regular or Lone) due to geography or schedule clashes, but in the majority of cases that just doesn’t apply. How many of the Brownies approaching 10 know all about what Guides in general do, and also about what the local unit has been doing recently? And how many know little or nothing about Guides, and that little mainly rumour or hearsay?
At 12 – in my area they start high school at around 12. A lot of members are lost then. It’s understandable – homework ramps up, there are lots of new clubs to choose from, meaning some existing hobbies have to be dropped to make room. Whether Guiding is dropped will depend on how exciting it still is, how much adventure and fun it still offers – or whether it has become a bit repetitive and dull.
At 14 – transition from Guides to Senior Section isn’t always straightforward – options locally may be limited as there are far fewer Senior Section units than there are Guide units - and support structures for Young Leaders can vary too. Plus, homework is increasing again as the key exams approach – can Guiding offer an attractive programme for the limited free time? Can we make it feasible to fit it in alongside the other hobbies and commitments? How much support is there for those finishing BP, so that they can get to both complete BP and move on to Senior Section with their pals at 14 - not have to choose between them?
At 16+ - by now the numbers still left in Guiding have shrunk – but for those who’ve stuck it thus far, we need to add on more pressures – key exams, job hunting or university choices, and transitioning to adult life (with all the challenges that brings). While some will be setting out onto working life immediately, others will still be schoolgirls for another couple of years yet. Can Guiding hold those who, though the same age, are going through some major life stages at different times and rates, and as a result may have widely differing maturity levels and outlook?
So, 5 clear stages at which large numbers of girls are lost from Guiding. What can we do to minimise our leaks at these points?
The first thing to focus on - is the actual transitions themselves. Ensuring that each girl does some preparation prior to the move, so she knows what the next section does, has met at least one of the Leaders (however briefly), has a proper leaving ceremony where she receives her leavers badge and a fond farewell from her pals, and then has a smooth process of transfer from one unit to the next - and even if there is a gap between leaving one unit and getting start at the next, as sometimes must be, no individuals are lost in the interim for want of keeping in touch with them. It also means that each unit should be working to prepare their girls for the coming move, almost from the minute they join the unit. There can regularly be conversations about the next unit(s) they might join to get them starting to look forward to the day their turn comes. Although we should automatically be using the transition resources which have already been provided for us (Pot of Gold, GFI Guides, Move on Up, YLQ/ALQ) in every unit in the UK anyway, that should be the last stage in an ongoing process. ‘The next section and what they’ve been doing recently’ should be regularly mentioned at your unit meetings, and occasional joint events held where your girls are actually mixing with those from the next section up (how many so-called joint events actually just involve everyone moving around in their strictly segregated unit groups, with the sections doing different activity sessions – so that they aren’t really joint at all, there just happen some other units onsite doing activities that day, whom you might bump into at the toilets or in the lunch queue if you’re lucky?). But also, we should be applying the personal touch - is the Leader of the next section someone who visits occasionally, or who helps at outings, or who is pointed out at joint events so girls know her by sight if not better than that? Do you regularly talk about the next section as a natural progression? (It should always be “When you’re a Brownie you’ll get the chance to do X”, not “if you join Brownies you might get to” as if there is some element of doubt about it). Of course, to do that, you actually need to know what the other units in your District are up to, both their section programme in general (can you chat comfortably about Roundabouts, or Adventures, or Challenge Badges or Octants - or do you need to do your homework?), and also specifically about what the units in your locality have done at meetings in the last month or two – so could you talk of the Brownie sponsored walk for charity, the Guide international camp, the Senior Section car maintenance session, the Leaders training day . . . or might you need a slot at each District meeting for unit updates, so everyone has up-to-date stories about the next section to share? And as they approach 7, or 10, or 14 – there should be communication with the girl and her folks, to advise on what units there are in the area, what the process for moving up is, and to discuss timing - when the girl wishes to move up, and how it will be arranged, so everyone knows what will happen and is comfortable with the plan.
The next thing is in-unit retention. Is your unit’s programme varied enough, that at each meeting the girls do at least one thing they haven’t done there before? Do they regularly do things that give them a sense of achievement? Is each meeting in some way unpredictable, surprising, fun? Or do the girls know fine well that the same things have happened every year or every third year since Eve was a lass, and will continue to do so for the next decade come what may? As a movement, we need to keep moving, keep changing, keep evolving what we do. That doesn’t mean throwing out all the old stuff merely for being old, but it does mean each activity we do, new or old, has to be regularly evaluated and ‘earn it’s keep’. So, do the modern girls still find it fun? Exciting? Challenging? Useful or educational? Relevant? ‘Because we’ve always done it’ is no reason to justify anything. A girl will only choose Guiding over all the other clubs available locally if Guiding is at least as exciting (and hopefully more exciting) than the alternatives. That’s what happened in the 1910s and 1920s when Guiding first grew, and is what happens still. If the members reach 7, or 10, or 12, or 14, and feel they’ve ‘done it all’ - then deciding which hobbies to drop when the new club comes along is an easy choice. So, how many of the girls who join your unit stick it for the duration? Is it ‘most of them’ – or not? And if not – why, and what are you doing to alter that?
Next up is challenge and progression. Are the girls in the unit getting to do stuff and achieve things, and work out stuff for themselves, without adults always telling them what to do and how to do it (or worse still, doing it for them)? And do the challenges continue to develop each year as their capabilities increase? Do the Rainbows get to draw round templates and cut shapes out, do they get to make some genuine either/or choices, do they get to take some genuine responsibilities within the unit, do they get to go on outings, or on sleepovers, are they expected to clear up after themselves? Do the Brownies get to do activities in their Sixes organised and led by their Sixer, do the Sixers get to run some of the unit activities each term, do the Brownies get to go on weekends, or even weeks away, do the Brownies get to do most things for themselves unaided? How much time do the Guides spend outdoors in summer term, do they work in Patrols regularly, do the Patrol Leaders have worthwhile responsibilities and meaningful perks or status, are there Guides working on BP, Commonwealth, Camp Permit or Community Action badge, are there opportunities for experiences like Gang Show cast, International Selection or attending major camps or events, do the Patrols do everything unaided with only the occasional pebble being dropped by adults which is just sufficient to get them working out ideas or solutions for themselves? Is there a Senior Section unit or a support group for local Young Leaders, how does it run and to what extent is that done by Senior Section members not adults, are there Senior Section events in your County, and do the girls know about them and whether transport is available for getting to them, are they encouraged to work on Commonwealth Award, DofE, Queen’s Guide, or YLQ/ALQ, and Chief Guide Award, do you highlight opportunities and options which are open to them, do they organise most of their meetings, is there support and flexible programming during exam time? Or – is any of that lacking?
And the final thing to remember – Lones. Although it’s assumed by many that Lone units are just for geographically isolated girls – that is only one of several functions. They can also provide Guiding to those girls who cannot attend local units due to other commitments clashing with unit meetings. And they can plug a gap for girls where local units are too full to accept more girls temporarily. But – Lone units need Leaders too, and there are some Regions in the UK who do not have any Lone units, not for want of girls, but for want of Leaders. It would be an ideal role for someone who couldn’t commit to weekly meetings but who had some free time to give to Guiding . . .
Bemoaning the loss of numbers from Guiding is waste of breath. Waste of breath and energy we could be using to actually do something to solve the problem. But - it needs every Leader to be actively working to plug the gaps in her patch, making sure her unit’s programme is so fresh, lively, and exciting that it retains the interest of almost all of the girls that join, and the girls are so keen on what they’ve heard of the next section that they’re equally well looking forward to their turn at moving on and being part of the adventures to come. We are all part of one friendly Guiding family, and local units should all be supportive cousins, not rivals . . .