In late summer The Scouts took the historic decision to open up membership to four and five-year-olds. But what’s the evidence behind the move, and which families and communities will benefit most?
Simply put, Scouts gives young people skills for life. It helps them speak up, play their part and find their place in the world. It improves their life chances in an increasingly complex, challenging and competitive society.
However, in the past, the movement has shied away from working with young people at such a young age. That’s set to change. The science has become compelling and the benefits increasingly obvious. There’s now widespread acknowledgement of the transformational power of good early years provision.
It’s in our earliest years when our most fundamental mental development takes place. The brain develops rapidly, forming up to a million new neural connections every second. Positive new experiences help promote the healthy development of executive functions, especially between the ages of three and six, including self-control, working memory, flexibility adaptability: skills we’ll use all our life; skills that Scouting can help to develop.
A movement of change
Each week over 460,000 young people (currently starting with Beavers Scouts from the age of 5¾) and 160,000 adult volunteers take part in Scout meetings and activities at the heart of our communities. The UK movement is a largely financially self-supporting locally franchised model that is fun, attractive and has stood the test of time.
Part of the reasons for that is that Scouting has not stood still – it has changed with the times to stay relevant. We’re part of the fabric of our society – and we’re about to change again.
In July, our national board of trustees approved plans to open a new section (age range) for four and five-year-olds. This decision was based on two years’ extensive research, 27 pilots across England and an external evaluation from the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC).
Crucial to this was the trustees’ recognition of the rapid and fundamental mental development at this early age, underlining the wisdom of that brilliant line: ‘If we change the beginning of the story, we change the whole story.’ A specially tailored Scout programme, therefore, has the potential to make an even bigger difference. We expect to create 100,000 new places for four and five-year-olds in the next five years to meet the demand.
The impact of COVID-19
The timing also couldn’t be more significant. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on under-fives – particularly in deprived areas, where preschool provision has had to stop.
Research from the Sutton Trust suggests that 34% of early years provision may have to shut permanently in the most deprived areas. What’s more, only 7% who usually attend were in some sort of provision during the lockdown. Unable to meet and play, these young people simply don’t have the opportunities to take part in those learning activities that develop teamwork and improve communication and language.
That’s why Scouts early years pilots have proved so successful. With a focus on storytelling, active play, team games, and exploring the outdoors, within a stable, reassuring routine, it’s provided a winning combination. Young people have loved the experience.
‘I like being noisy,’ said one child who’s taken part, ‘as well as the songs, dancing and making things.’
Another child really pinpointed the difference between this and more formal learning. ‘We do learning at school and learning here but it’s game learning here rather than writing.
Significantly, in the Scout model, there is an emphasis on helping others, instilling generosity and kindness at an early age.
The benefits are obvious: increased happiness, wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem, trustworthiness and resilience. Without this sort of early years, young people can start school up to a year behind their peers.
There are huge benefits for the parents who get involved as volunteers too, including better parenting and other skills, and a wider support network.
Reaching out to new communities
But who will benefit most from these extra places? The weakness of the Scout model is that it grows easiest in the communities where Scouts is already strong. These are communities with existing groups of committed volunteers and with meeting places and other facilities already available. Volunteers and meeting places are two of the essential components in the Scout model.
However, this project marked a change in our approach. With the support of donors, every pilot was launched in an Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD 1-3) community. Over 350 young people have already directly benefitted, across the 27 pilot groups, and we’ve engaged over 90 new volunteers.
The goal was to develop the new programme in harder-to-reach communities from the outset. This was a key decision, never assuming that resources or outdoor spaces would be in place, for example. It stands in stark contrast to the normal approach of retrofitting a successful programme into more deprived communities.
When this work started in 2018, no one saw COVID-19 coming. It’s been a double-edged sword for the Scouts. The current priority for the movement is returning to face-to-face meetings after several months of social distancing and home-based activities. However COVID-19 gives this early years project added impetus: it’s the very same generation of toddlers that have suffered the restricted, stuck-at-home world of social distancing. They will be among the first to benefit from the opportunities we can offer – making new friends while improving communication and social skills.
A critical moment
The big question, therefore, is who will benefit? What proportion of the 100,000 new places will be created in harder to reach communities? The Scouts bring decades of programme experience to this, along with the know-how to recruit, train and support volunteers; plus the scalability and sustainability of a proven model.
Chief Scout, Bear Grylls said:
“We believe we can make an incredible difference to young people’s lives at a time when it matters most – giving them the skills and resilience to succeed. We’re committed and ready to do this, but who benefits most depends on our ability to find partners who share our passion for pushing this beyond the communities where Scouting is already strong.”
These are still early days. We have not launched the new age range yet. However, we’ve committed to moving ahead with this at the right time. The next six months will prove crucial. Successfully delivering an early year’s provision in communities where Scouting is not currently strong takes focus and funding.
The #iwill Fund, which is made possible thanks to £50 million joint investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to support young people to access high-quality social action opportunities has agreed to match fund up to £1.25m if the Scouts also secure funding. This is to ensure early years Scouting reaches those who could benefit most over the next three years.
Some funders have already come on board, but others are needed. If we can attract the right funding and support, we can make a fundamental and lasting difference to a whole new generation.