Scouting for character

Politicians on both sides of the despatch box have recently emphasised the importance of building ‘character’ into our education system. The Prime Minister launched the National Citizen Service with the aim of building character skills among young people. The Step Up To Serve campaign – which is supported by all three political parties – also has ‘character’ development at the core of its rationale to double the number of young people taking part in social action and volunteering.

In the report we launch today, Scouting for Skills, we add to the evidence base suggesting that programmes like the Scouts are critical in building character for both the young people and the adult volunteers taking part.

Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts movement, once said that he wanted the Scouts to be a ‘character factory’ that produced young people with ‘the spirit of self-negation, self-discipline, sense of humour, responsibility, helpfulness to others, loyalty and patriotism’. Our research – based on around 100 interviews with young Scouts, adult volunteers and employers – found that the overwhelming majority felt that Scouting activities – true to Baden-Powell’s vision – helped to build and instil character in those taking part.

We argue that schools need to do more to support and encourage extracurricular activities like the Scouts. But also that such activity should be incorporated into schools by getting kids out of the classroom, and participating in ‘service learning’: projects and lessons that include volunteering in the local community. This is supported by the views of teachers. A recent Demos survey of teachers found that 88 per cent thought that volunteering built character, while only 3 per cent felt the same way about coursework.

But it wasn’t just the young people who felt that Scouting built character; the same was true of adult volunteers. Given the value that programmes like Scouts can offer for both – and the fact that there are 40,000 young people who are on the waiting list because of a lack of adult volunteers – we wanted to find out what would help adults to volunteer more.

Employer supported volunteering schemes seems the key, and could constitute a ‘triple win’: they offer adult volunteers a fulfilling experience that helps them build skills, they mean more young people the opportunity to take part in programmes like Scouts (which depend on volunteers), and they benefit businesses by providing them with more motivated and skilled employees.

A survey of employees found that almost 2 in 3 felt that volunteering made them perform better in their job. Two-thirds (66 per cent) saw a noticeable improvement in their communication skills, with negotiating (45 per cent), team-working (43 per cent) and leadership skills (41 per cent) also improving.

Making employer supported volunteering programmes the norm across the UK could be a game-changer in achieving the Step Up To Serve campaign’s aim of getting 50 per cent of young people to take part in social action by 2020. Many companies have highly developed volunteering schemes, but others – including small and medium businesses – still need to be convinced and supported.

As a starter, we argue that businesses could make savings on their budgets for staff training and redirect these funds into hiring intermediate organisations to match volunteers with organisations that need support. These brokers could also help accredit the skills that volunteers gain so they are recognised by employers.

Moreover, we argue that employers should consider the volunteering activities of their staff as part of their performance review, including in the awarding of pay rises and promotions. This is less about incentivising employees to take part, but rather helping to establish and shift our expectations about what constitutes a ‘model employee’ – not just as someone who is good at their job, but who is also committed to having an impact in the wider community.