Monday, 3 November 2014

Change . . .

There was a time when ‘parcel tape’ was a kind of lick-and-stick paper tape which was difficult to use and not very effective, so the wisest way to secure your parcel for postage was with string. Nowadays, with the machinery the post office use for parcels, string is a snagging risk, and modern parcel tape is usually better.

There was a time when runaway horses were a real menace in busy towns and cities, and knowing how to deal with them was a valuable skill. Nowadays horses are very rarely seen in the street, so the risk is much lower.

There was a time when every house would have had coal fires, and many would have had coal-fired ‘ranges’ for cooking on too. Nowadays fires are very rarely used, so girls are less familiar with them.

Back then, girls wore ankle-length skirts, and wouldn’t be seen outdoors without a hat. Middle and upper class girls would not be allowed out without an adult chaperone anyway. Working class girls would leave school at 14 to start work (although some left as early as 11 or 12). Girls were discouraged from taking part in sport for fear it would ‘damage their organs’ – and the corsetry which it was customary for women to wear limited the exercise they could take anyway.

Hence, although the first handbooks gave information on how to tie parcels with string, how to stop runaway horses without excessive risk to yourself and how to light fires and put out clothes on fire, the current handbooks (or their equivalents) don’t. Is that not terrible? Wouldn’t the founders be turning in their graves if they knew of it?

On the other hand, in those days there was no television, radio or computers, and cinemas were a new invention, so there was less ‘adult’ material for girls to encounter. Cars were a new and rare invention, so the speed of traffic wasn’t the issue it is nowadays.

So I find it fascinating that so many media commentators and columnists seek to paint the way in which Guiding programmes have changed over the decades as if it were a problem, perhaps even a crisis, and clearly something disgraceful that the public should be up in arms about. It’s as if these writers honestly think we should still be doing the exact same activities in the exact same way we did 50 or 80 years ago, regardless of circumstance. Is it a problem that where we used to promote good health and body image through the ‘health rules’ that nowadays we do the equivalent thing through ‘healthy lifestyles’ and body image campaigns? Or should we still be teaching the girls to recite “Only feed on wholesome fare . . .” parrot-fashion regardless of whether the girls understand what ‘fare’ is or not?

In their pleas, what these commentators overlook - is the real reason why many of these activities were put in the Scout and Guide programmes in the first place. Why did Baden-Powell include knots? Not for their own sake! He made it clear that his real aim was for the Scouts and Guides to develop their concentration and their manual dexterity, and knots were just the practical means. Signalling with Morse or semaphore weren’t really done for the long-distance communication they enabled, but were actually mainly included for the concentration and stickability it took to sit down and properly learn each letter and symbol by heart, until youngsters could use them from memory, and at practical speed. All that skipping and ball throwing was not an end in itself, but actually just to develop co-ordination. He put in things about washing yourself regularly and changing clothes for bed because most of the Scouts and Guides would get one bath a week if they were lucky, and one laundry day a week – so that basic level of cleanliness was a realistic target to ask for health-wise from even the poorest. Now that houses all have flush toilets and running water, we can focus more on enough hours of sleep and improving diet.

So there is no need for us to set our programmes in stone, or worry about anyone turning in their graves because we aren’t still doing the exact same things we did back in 1912, so long as we focus on putting in place a programme which develops the equivalent qualities and skills in the modern youngster. The same community-minded spirit, the same personal development. Scouting and Guiding didn’t just keep re-printing the same old handbooks year after year – look back and you will see that every few years, right up to his death in 1941, Baden-Powell made significant revisions and issued new editions of the handbooks - and there were regular updates in the official magazines between handbook editions. Because the founder kept on developing and altering and refining the original ideas, making changes both minor and major. And I’m willing to bet that if he were still around, he would still be making revisions yet, to ensure that the programme was still attractive to the modern youngster . . .

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