Bob-a-Job and Brown Owl are fighting for their lives as teenagers decamp. Decca Aitkenhead reports
"We are a values-based organisation, we are deeply committed to spiritual development. Oh yes, and we let the boys bring their computer games along."

So speaks the modern Scout master. The Scouts are almost a century old, and like the Boys' Brigade, the Brownies, and all those movements that put children in uniform around a camp fire, they are in trouble.

Few childhood experiences have touched more adults than those evenings spent in a drafty hut singing songs. Bob-a-job and Brown Owl seemed to symbolise John Major's Utopia - of church and family, empire and order, discipline and innocence, duty and service. Society would be safe in the hands of those who did a good turn each day.

So the news, in July, that Scouts might cease swearing allegiance to the Crown provoked profound unease. Scouting was further shaken by allegations in a television documentary that the movement's founder, Baden-Powell, was a "sexually confused sadist". Then the Guide Association revealed last month that it was struggling to recruit leaders.

But the problems facing Baden-Powell's progeny run far deeper than a shortfall of housewives with time on their hands. Concerns about child abuse, video games, LEA opt-outs, Lloyd's casualties, job insecurity, secularism, street fashion and myriad other minutiae of modern living are conspiring to place the future of age-old youth organisations in jeopardy.

"People say, `Whatever happened to the Scouts? You never see them on the streets any more'," says John Fogg, spokesman for the Scouts Association. "Well, in this day and age you can hardly let boys knock on strangers' doors, doing Bob-a-Job, can you?

"And in my district, which is no hotbed of unrest, the boys won't walk to and from meetings in their uniform, in case they get beaten up."

Scouting, he concedes, is not cool. Good deeds and guy ropes have a job competing with the more glamorous activities available today. A MORI survey last year found that three-quarters of Scouts felt they were seen as naff; a third of Scout commissioners thought they were considered goody- goody. Scout numbers, currently at around 650,000, have been falling steadily since the late Eighties.

The biggest problem, according to Mr Fogg, is getting overworked adults to give up their time. And those adults who do volunteer are treated with deep suspicion. Sex abuse cases like that involving Scout leader Peter Atkins, convicted last month of molesting teenage boys on camp, have enthralled the tabloids and prompted the association to issue a strict code of conduct governing physical contact and sleeping arrangements. "I never even used to think about it," sighs Mr Fogg.

On a chilly night out on an east London estate, the leader of the 8th Beckton Scouts is uneasy. "I do worry that people look at me and think I'm a pervert," says Paul Brittain. The lone qualified supervisor smiles apologetically as 30 or so Scouts whack each other. "They're playing British Bulldogs," he offers, hopefully.

The group of 10 to 15-year-old boys and girls has arrived at the school hall in high spirits and startlingly low levels of uniform. It's a ramshackle but hugely good-natured affair, with older Scouts helping as they build fishing rods out of bamboo sticks.

It could be any youth club, were it not for the curious hush at the beginning and the end, when a raggedy Union Jack is solemnly raised and lowered on a climbing frame.

Mr Brittain is struggling to define what the Scouts can still stand for: "I can't be authoritarian, because that will put people off. I can't be too religious, because that will put people off. I can't be a uniform person, because that will put people off." He pauses, bashful. "But I think we must have some kind of standards."

A meeting of Dulwich Guides, in south London, is more sedate. It is fancy- dress night. The girls, aged between 10 and 13, vamped up in their mothers' make-up, say: "It's something to do on a Monday night".

Hilary Williams, the Guide Association's chief executive, has assured me that the "with it" leaders provide "splendid female role models". But laudable as their efforts are, "Pugwash", "Woodstock" and "Puffin" are broad of beam, hale and hearty, and anything but "with it". By the time the girls are 16, it is easy to guess what they will make of these role models. It is no surprise that while there are 175,000 Guides in this age group, there are just 20,000 aged 14 to 25.

The Guide Association's numbers have fallen by 64,000 in the past 12 years, to750,000. Many groups have had to close, once newly opted-out schools realised they could charge commercial rates for use of their hall, thereby pricing Guides out of the market. Numbers are down to 117,000 at the Boys' Brigade, a pseudo-military movement set up over 100 years ago by an army officer trying to discipline young boys. "It's a constant struggle," sighs a spokeswoman. Army cadets now scarcely number 40,000, air cadets 30,000, sea cadets half that number.

The need for all these movements to respond to decline is clear. Every aspect of their work, from dress code to moral code, is under review, as they attempt to update their appeal. But the terms of the change have sparked a civil war, as modernisers bent on reform clash with fundamentalists seeking a retreat into traditional roots.

A prime example of the modernising tendency at work is the Guides' new vision statement, which talks of women realising their potential "in their career, home and personal life", in that order. In 1990, they enlisted designer Jeff Banks to come up with what Ms Williams charmingly calls "a range of mix-and-match co-ordinates". Guides can now earn a World Issues Badge.

Chief Scout Garth Morrison is the champion of the fundamentalists - he lambasts society for "empty scepticism". He roundly condemned reports that condoms were included in Scouts' welcome packs at last summer's annual jamboree. "The Scout Law says explicitly that a Scout has self-respect, and casual sexual relationships break that Law," thunders the ex-Royal Navy man.

During his seven-year reign he has expelled long-serving humanist scout leaders, made it clear that atheists are unwelcome and been big on "duty to God".

Religion lies at the heart of the confusion about these movements' future. They are defined by spiritual development, but while the Boys' Brigade is rooted in the Church of England, Baden-Powell's legacy is officially "multi-faith." After much hand-wringing, Scouts and Guides now swear allegiance to "my God". But John Fogg admits that there are still many who believe the association's job is to produce "good little Christians".

But ironically, the best chance for these organisations' survival lies in the ethnic minority communities. Scout and Guide groups set up this year for Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, east London, have been a spectacular success. Single-sex, spiritually oriented activities more readily strike a chord among inner-city Muslim families than among white kids busy with their Supernintendos and secularism. More Muslim groups are due to open with adult community leaders coming forward in abundance.

What might Baden-Powell have made of it all, I wonder. I tackle one of the 8th Beckton Scouts on the matter. The boy blinks.

"Who's he?"