The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
After 114 years, the Girl Guides have
Girlguiding has played a huge part in many lives, but it’s struggling to stay relevant. By Lucy Foster
Girlguiding has been an enormous force for good in Vicki Fullam’s life. She began by joining the Brownies aged seven, and went through the system, becoming a Guide, a Young Leader, a Leader and then latterly, having moved to France for work in 2010, District Commissioner for the whole Paris region. “Paris has been home to Guides for over 100 years,” she tells me from her home in the eastern suburbs of the city. “There are archive pictures of Guides taking shelter in the Metro from Second World War bombs.” She talks of how the organisation has given her some of her best friends: how it’s like family, how the girls she looks after run in with pictures they’ve drawn for her every week. “It’s just amazing, the connection, the community,” she says.
The Girlguiding movement, established in 1909 by Agnes Baden-Powell (sister of the Boy
Scouts founder) is the UK’s largest organisation dedicated to girls. There are 27,000 groups, 110,000 adult members and more than 300,000 girls – all between the ages of four and 18 – who meet as Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rangers. For girls who attend and the volunteers who give over hours, weeks, months of their time, it is a huge, fundamental part of their lives – particularly so if they’re living away from home. “If you are an English speaker in a location where English isn’t the first language, what you can be part of shrinks, so what you are part of matters more,” explains one British Girlguiding Overseas (BGO) trainer.
Fullam is just one of 2,600 members (almost exclusively from English-speaking homes) in more than 36 countries and territories that make up BGO. But Girlguiding has just informed members that as of September 1 this year, BGO will cease to exist. Contingency plans for these newly adrift girls and leaders, often from government and military families and who consider BGO a lifeline to home, seem flaky at best. “Corporate risk” has been blamed for the decision, but no one seems keen to clarify that term further. When I approached Girlguiding HQ, they declined an opportunity for interview and sent me the official press notice as a response. To further muddy the waters, it should be noted that no such announcement has been made for the Scouts and its overseas branches.
This is the latest in a long line of strikingly forthright – and for some, frankly baffling – decisions by Girlguiding, an organisation that was founded on principles of friendship and personal development. In 2021, an investigation was launched when Instagram pictures of Monica Sulley, a trans Girl Guide commissioner for the Nottinghamshire area, were published. One shows her shooting a fake assault rifle; another in a black corset dress holding a whip. In another, she discussed her cleavage. She had been appointed to the position earlier that year.
In 2019, Guide leader Katie Alcock was expelled from the organisation for objecting to a 2017 policy that allowed boys who identified as girls to join the charity; Ms Alcock felt that it presented a safety issue for girls when they were all sharing the same facilities and accommodation on trips away from home. She claimed that she had been discriminated against for her feminist views and a settlement between her and Girlguiding was made last April.
Last year, an article published in the charity’s summer magazine praised the Rainbows (Girlguiding’s youngest group, for children aged four to seven) for including a child who was born a boy but who began “living as a girl” aged five. Inevitably, debate erupted online over whether a child could gender-identify that early in life – some parents were delighted, others dismayed over Girlguiding’s stance on the topic.
And now, seemingly out of nowhere, the international operation – which is written into the original Royal Charter – has been dissolved, unilaterally, with little to no discussion. For an organisation that so many associate with childhood innocence, silly games in school halls, marshmallows over campfires and renditions of Kumbaya, things seem to have become rather fraught.
“Yes, it seems to have lost its way a bit, doesn’t it?” says one high-up member of the charity I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous. There has been something akin to a three-linewhip delivered to all members of the organisation in this regard: “send all enquiries to the HQ” is the directive. The HQ, when approached, says nothing.
I discussed with the anonymous high-up our feeling that the Scouts seem more relevant – they’ve got Bear Grylls as chief scout; they admit girls without any handwringing; and somehow, in this era of social media scrolling, TikTok and energy drinks, seem to be pivoting and surviving. You can still see a place for Scouts in the 21st century. It’s hard to say the same about Girl Guides.
“There’s a new deputy chief guide, have you spotted that?” says my contact, with a note of the eternal Guides optimism. I had spotted it: Sally Kettle, who is cut
from the same cloth as Grylls, in that she has rowed the Atlantic twice. “Yes, they’ve gone for the adventurer spirit there,” the senior Guide said. “However, I do agree it’s gone awry. For me, it’s felt a lot like there’s been a focus on politicising the movement.”
The emphasis, she explained, is now about finding your voice. “And that’s great,” she says. “For girls to find their voices, of course it’s really important, and I absolutely wouldn’t want that to disappear. But it seems to have lost its balance, because where’s the focus on: ‘be a child’, ‘play’ and ‘get muddy’ – that more innocent, simpler way of thinking and doing things? What about ‘be in a happy, safe place and explore’? The emphasis on that seems to have dipped compared to ‘let’s find something that is wrong and protest about it’.”
She pointed out that the Girlguiding movement is “essentially a vehicle for growing the soft skills. The point of girl guiding isn’t to gain badges, per se; the point is to have friendship, to develop your own voice, to learn how to be in a team and how to lead. That’s what we’re really trying to achieve; those are the core skills the girls are picking up.”
This new campaigning culture may have its own merits, but by leaving behind its roots as a girls-only safe space where friendships are nourished and such important skills are nurtured, it could be argued that Girlguiding is missing a trick. Never before have our girls so badly needed a space stripped of Twitter outrage, Instagram filters and unachievable expectations chipping away at selfesteem, one post at a time. Surely understanding the value of true sisterhood and developing both yourself and your skillset away from online noise is priceless in this day and age?
“After Guides finishes at 14, girls can move on to Rangers, and certainly, as a mum, that was incredibly useful,” said my contact. “Because that’s the age that all of those things – boys, social media – come crashing in. But to me, having that support around when they’re teenagers, where there was a trusted adult who didn’t interfere in the conversations but who was able to be another point of contact, was invaluable.”
Yet it would seem Girlguiding has a mountain to climb. Aside from its foray into political campaigning and its trans stance, which has clearly alarmed many supporters, there is a brandbuilding job to do on the ground. There is always a drop-off in numbers after each grouping finishes – not all Brownies become Guides, not all Guides become Rangers – but there is now growing competition from the Scouts and from similar programmes, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, that have developed that all-important cachet of cool.
“I have two older sisters and they both did Brownies,” says Hebe Bouchier Hayes, 15, from Brixton in south London. “But by the time I was old enough to enrol, they were pretty disparaging about it. I got the impression they sang weird songs and I felt like I did enough praying at school. The leaders have odd nicknames and it seems more like a cult than a place to hang out. I do a lot of afterschool activities, but I want them to have more of a purpose.”
Bouchier Hayes is currently working towards her Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. “I like that there’s a clear goal at the end of it and there are obvious benefits to the community. I’ve been volunteering at a local school, helping with netball practice, for two years. Without help from girls like me, not as many girls would be able to join in. Plus you get to go on an expedition on your own with friends. It seems so much more fun than Brownies or Girl Guides.”
The BGO trainer responds, “Look, all these activities run on reputation. If you have a great Beaver Scout colony next to you, your children – both boys and girls – will want to go there. But if your daughter’s friends go to an incredible Rainbow unit, that will colour her view. Similarly, if you live close to a brilliant swimming club that runs umpteen other events, your children will want to go there. There is a whole array of activities out there – we can’t put scouting and guiding in competition with each other, or with these other programmes that are available. If it is a fantastic club, and it develops your child in a positive way, no matter what name it goes under, it’s a worthwhile thing.” But for how much longer?