guides and scouts Brownies

Girl Guides and Brownies, Cubs and Scouts: knots, camping, fires, community service. One organisation for girls; one for boys. That's the way it was when we were children; whether we liked it or not.

But today, it seems that Girl Guides and Scouts aren't exactly what we remember.

Some parents' groups have criticised the Girl Guides movement for promoting stereotypically feminine interests like fashion and beauty in its modern-day activities such as 'Passion 4 Fashion' and 'Glamorama'.

And more and more girls have been joining the Scouts. 4,330 girls joined the movement compared to 3,796 boys in the 12 months up to 31 January 2011 - there are now over 66,000 girls in the Scouts.

Last year the Scouts announced its introduction of a new uniform for Muslim female Scouts.

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To many parents, modernisation and inclusion sound like a great idea. Others would prefer these groups to stay just how they were. But what exactly has changed? And how do parents really feel about it?

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In fact, girls have been eligible to join the Scouts since 1976, and Beavers and Cubs (for the under-11s) since 1991. Far from being just for boys, Scouting is the largest co-educational youth movement in the UK. The movement continues to focus on adventure and personal development. Scout members do more than 200 outdoor activities such as kayaking, parasailing and zorbing.

Rainbows, Brownies and Guides, on the other hand, are just for girls, and have over 500,000 members. In recent years they have introduced new activities which focus on 'feminine' interests. Passion 4 Fashion, for example: 'Indulge your passion for fashion with this absolutely fabulous resource! From star styles to inner beauty, clothes makeovers to fashion shows with a difference, it will bring the glamorous world of fashion to your meetings.'

Meanwhile, Go For It! Glamorama! is 'an ideal opportunity for you and your Patrol to have a go at some fantastic activities and make yourselves feel good and glamorous! From face masks to massage, and manicures to manic hair there's loads for you to do.'

But to be fair to the organisation, most of its activities are less airheaded. Girls are equally free to choose to focus on activities teaching them about sport, camping, football, science, computing, public speaking and space.

In fact, in many respects, Girlguiding has moved on in a positive way. When we were little girls, the most coveted Brownie badge was the 'Hostess' badge, for which you had to serve a cup of tea and perhaps some fairy cakes on a tray. Today, that's thankfully been consigned to history, and modern Brownies can instead put their hostess skills to use planning a party. The brown dresses have been replaced by practical trousers.

And then there are the Brown Owls. When we were young, Brown Owls were traditional Enid Blyton types who demanded rigid conformity from their packs. But perhaps that has changed, too.

One mother, Nicky, says: "The Brown Owls are very different – when I was a child the Brown Owl was terrifying – very bossy and shouty and completely unapproachable. The leaders from my daughter's pack are young (early 20s) and incredibly nice and approachable - they are good role models."

But there are still some rather old-fashioned 'girly' activities, too - Brownies today can aim to get a 'Homeskills' badge, teaching them about cleaning a sink, ironing clothes and washing up.
Perhaps this is why many parents are encouraging their daughters to jump ship from Brownies to Cubs.

Tamsin is one mum who says she feels 'queasy' about her daughter's Brownie experience. "My daughter was at Brownies for just under a year – lots of dried flower arranging, writing lists of best friends and getting stoked up with bags of sweets they could buy at the end. She switched to Cubs with her best friend once we heard they had opened up to girls – they were the first two but they were very welcomed. It was entirely different – lots of team games, camping trips, night time yomps.

"Every Monday evening they were rosy-cheeked and full of excitement. I like the way Cubs is open to both girls and boys – that reflects society – and I feel uneasy at the way Brownies and Guides hold on to this 'girl world' idea and, in my experience, sedentary activities."

Siobhan agrees: "Una tried out Rainbows for a couple of terms and did quite enjoy it. But it was very quiet. It was run by a couple of older women and there were only about six girls there. They would sing a bit and play a few games but mostly seemed to just make things gluing pre-cut cardboard bits together. Occasionally a bit of colouring. So quite low key."

When Una left to join Beavers instead, says Siobhan, she was in for a change: "It was chaos! Loads of boys going crazy with balls and she was a little daunted at first. But she settled in quickly and it really suits her.

"They do much more active stuff. It is quite full on and she often comes home looking hot and sweaty but that helps make it a really nice complementary activity to her other stuff like swimming and dancing. More girls have joined now, and she has found her confidence there. It's a real contrast to Rainbows and I don't think we – or she – has any regrets about leaving."

For other parents, though, a single-sex organisation can be a good idea. Siobhan says of her daughter's Guides experience: "At 11-14-ish there are huge differences in maturity between girls and boys on the whole (I have both and have worked in schools)...also girls often feel more confident to do more boisterous things without boys around."

One thing that both Guides and Scouts try not to mention much in their promotional literature these days is the continuation of the swearing of allegiance to God and Queen in both organisations (though the Guides have allowed this to be amended to 'my God' to include children of different faiths).

Sioned says she would never send her two-year-old to either group. "Nothing against the Queen personally and I respect her as a person, but no more than any other human being. She is just another human. As for swearing an oath to a god, that's fine for those who are religious. But what about us atheists?"

Nicky, who went to Brownies as a child and whose daughter loves Brownies, sees it differently: "I recall making the Brownie Guide promise and pledging allegiance to Queen and Country. I came from a left-leaning background, so certainly didn't put my heart and soul into the promise – it just felt a bit weird and after doing it once, I didn't think about it again.

"My daughter seems to have the same approach and was very blasé about this aspect. Her focus is entirely on the chance to hang out with a group of girls and to do various arts and crafts activities, play games and have fun. My daughter is not into 'pink and fluffy' at all - her main interests are animals, nature, climbing, drawing and reading, and there are a number of badges that reflect her interests."

Julia has four girls aged 10-15 who have enjoyed Brownies and Guides. She reflects: "Me, I think it's a bit dull and girly. But they've all enjoyed it. I do like the fact that it is an antidote to the oversexualisation of kids and the pressures of teen life, and allows them to be little girls. I take my hats off to the organisers who give up their spare time. It's not my thing, but overall, it's a good thing."

Do your children go to Brownies, Cubs, Guides or Scouts? What are the best and worst aspects?