CEO’s blog | Learning the lessons of history

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What is the link between Desert Island Discs and Scouting? Scouts CEO Matt Hyde explains all, before reflecting on why Scouting should be proud of its past – and what that means for the future.

For the past few years I have become rather obsessed with the Desert Island Discs archive. Whenever I go for a run, rather than listening to Beyoncé or the Arctic Monkeys, I’ll immerse myself on a Desert Island with the music and musings of a notable public figure. I’ve been working my way back through the noughties, the nineties, eighties and so on. There’s something curiously fascinating about listening, for instance, to Bruce Forsyth reflecting that he is coming to the end of his career… in 1996.

A vintage episode with interesting parallels

And so it was that I stumbled across the Desert Island Discs of our former Chief Scout, Sir William Gladstone, who was interviewed by Roy Plomley in 1976. It’s well worth a listen. But what I found most striking is the fact that the themes discussed are almost exactly the same as they are today. In the interview, Sir William talks about how Scouting changes lives and the need therefore to extend Scouting into areas of deprivation. Some readers will know this thinking informed the project Scoutreach, which brought Scouting to new areas and populations across the UK.

The interview prompted me to plough through the Scoutreach archives. I found some illuminating information – such as the need to ensure local ownership from volunteers, to innovate whilst ensuring that Scouting is sustainable and not reliant on public funding, and to remove cost barriers by targeting external funding. These are lessons that still apply as we drive the development of Scouting in deprived areas today.

Moving forward, learning the lessons

Why do I share this story with you? I share it because I think we have so much to learn from our history. As someone who thrives on change and innovation, I am acutely aware that if we want things to stay the same, things will need to change.  It is our capacity to evolve that has ensured we remain relevant. As our founder Baden-Powell said, we keep changing with the times because we are a Movement. But it often seems that each generation’s collective memory is wiped, so that we are unable to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – whether it is politicians or senior managers. Sometimes, there is such a thirst to innovate in some areas of service delivery that we too easily reject the lessons of the past as no longer relevant to modern times.

Membership organisations that have been around for a while often have an uncomfortable relationship with their history – mainly because they want to communicate to the world, ‘we’re not like that any more.’ And indeed when I meet opinion formers I spend a lot of my time pointing out that we’re not the ‘Boy Scouts’, that 18% of our youth members are girls, that 50% of Scout volunteers are women and that we are a growing and thriving Movement of 540,000 members, which has experienced eight consecutive years of growth. But I think it’s a mistake to try and expunge our history. There is both so much to be proud of and so much to learn from, to inform where we are today and where we go in the future.

Proud of our past

We should be confident enough in our current position of strength that our history should not be seen as an embarrassment – on the contrary; Scouting has made one of the greatest contributions to social history in the twentieth century.

This year sees the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – far from being quiet about our role in this event, we should be proud of the contribution Scouts made (as anyone who saw Jeremy Paxman’s recent series on the Great War will have recognised). That is why we’ve developed programme materials to educate our youth members about the war.

If we learn from our past, continue to innovate, and stay true to our values we will be able to use our scale and reach to change so many more lives in the future. Without being shackled by it, our history needs to inform our future.

Matt Hyde
Chief Executive, The Scout Association

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