Back in 2010, not long after rejoining Girlguiding, we celebrated "Vision". Vision was our centenary finale, celebrating 100 years of the UK's largest charity for girls and young women, and ringing in the next hundred! In Nottingham, Vision was a wonderful event with several thousand members in the city centre. My Brownies rode in on an old London Routemaster, decorated in centenary coloured ribbons and bows - they felt like princesses on a parade!
The following day, I was teaching in a local primary school, a lovely CoE school in the village down the road. I had always noticed certain characters in the school, that they had a certain quiet self-assurance about them and a gift for group work that was particularly impressive amongst the younger ones who often struggle to share and work together. That day, the headteacher had a very special theme for the assembly; he asked that everyone who had their special item in their pockets stand up and put them on. Suddenly, these girls who I had seen as emotionally developed beyond their years all stood up. And the items they put on were their pink neckerchiefs from Vision the night before.
It was this assembly that started me thinking about Girlguiding and the many benefits that we offer young people. Because as much as it's seen to be about the activities (whether they be adventurous ones or more service based), there is something running deeper than that.
In a secondary school I taught at not long after, I had a similar experience. I was teaching music and each group had to put together a composition. They had their task and success criteria, but were largely left to their own development. Those groups with Guides in them had the organisational skills to break the task down, to assign roles, and the confidence to assert themselves as well as support others in their group who were more nervous.
Similarly, this last summer, my new GCSE German group had two young ladies who I instantly recognised to be Senior Section members, before they even told me. How could this be possible?
It's because, right from the start, we use our five essentials. A varied and balanced programme is just one of the five, and it is important to give our girls challenge, variation and opportunity. But we look after each member as an individual to build their self-esteem. It is often thought by education professionals and behavioural psychologists that children with higher self-esteem and stronger support networks tend to thrive at school, that they are calmer, more thoughtful and engage more consistently with their work. We teach them to work in small groups, both as leaders and as team members. Sometimes this involves team games, sometimes it involves problem solving and sometimes, as with my Rangers, it involves them each planning an evening for the other girls. And we also ask our members to govern themselves as much as they can, as early as they can. It may mean choosing their favourite activity, or a sixer that takes a register each meeting, or it could be a Senior Section member taking some responsibility for the unit budget. But they are making the decisions, they are leading, they are learning to look after others as well as themselves.
Girlguiding has a holistic approach to child development - teaching about relevant issues in a non-formal environment, offering new activities as well as encouraging transferable skills. And part of this holistic approach, of course, is our fifth essential, the framework for our organisation - our Promise. We show girls that their beliefs and their own world views are important, that to look out and understand and help the world, they need to look in and understand themselves too. We teach them the importance of community, help them explore morality, honesty, how to overcome challenges, what it really means to try their best.
One of the additional key elements of Girlguiding's ability to develop the girl, in my experience, lies in the simple fact that it's not school. I have worked with Rainbows, Brownies and Guides who have struggled academically for various reasons, but have thrived in Guiding without the pressure and expectations that accompany targets, assessments, constant reminders about spelling and punctuation. I have worked with several of my Brownies and been surprised by the notes left for me by their class teachers and even said, "Did you know that L is really good at this?" And the knowledge that they are valued members of a community, that they have their own strengths and abilities, builds their confidence at school and helps them face their everyday challenges with grace and determination.
And, of course, the girl's unit - whether it be Rainbows, Brownies, Guides or Senior Section - is a safe, girl-only space. So often there is a huge gender-divide in the classroom, one that is often (consciously or not) compounded by the staff in there who reinforce the stereotypes and the thought that boys should be louder, more boisterous, more confident. Girlguiding allows development space away from these stereotypes and pressure.
If only every girl got that chance.