Elderly ladies stranded on the wrong side of the road can breathe a sigh of relief. The UK now has more Scouts than at any time in the past 40 years. Membership of the group has reached almost 500,000, show figures published today. More than 16,500 people have joined since January last year, the fifth consecutive annual rise.
Contrary to the commonly held belief that Britain's youth is an increasingly sedentary bunch, the Scout Association said a major reason for the surge was down to record levels of interest from teenagers. Some 65,000 teenagers are now involved in Scouting, a rise of more than 26 per cent since 2001.
So why are so many people signing up? For Kate Lloyd, a Scout leader at the 100th St George's Newcastle troop, the answer is clear. "People are coming to the Scouts because of the activities they offer," she said. "Rock climbing, canoeing, abseiling and other outdoor activities. Schools are turning away from them because they're concerned about health and safety. The Scouts are carrying on with these just the same. People turn up to our Scout group because they want to do these sorts of things."
Among activities undertaken by Scouts in the UK are zorbing, water skiing, abseiling and adventure glider flights, not to be found on the curriculum of many schools. But the growth in membership has also come after a keen publicity drive by the group. Ms Lloyd says several of her troop's new members have come because "their parents have seen Scouting advertised and encouraged their kids to join".
In a PR coup in July last year, the adventurer and television presenter Bear Grylls was appointed Chief Scout. He hoped the growth would inspire more people to join. "It's fantastic to witness such a huge surge in Scouting," he said. "It is proof that Scouting is appealing more and more to teenagers. Scouting is empowering, wild and fun, and offers so many adventure-based activities for young people and adults alike. My goal is for every young person who wants to be involved in Scouting to be able to be so. I hope to inspire even more adults to volunteer and help this happen."
Adults, too, are joining in increasing numbers. Some 2,800 people are signed up to the leaders' programme, up 3.1 per cent on 2009. But waiting-lists to join the movement remain at an all-time high due to the need for more adult volunteers. Although more than 13,500 new places were created this year, thanks to 2,871 new adult volunteers, some 33,500 young people are still on the waiting-list.
Not all adults who volunteer work with young people; other jobs include gardening and general DIY, organising events, doing the accounts and writing press releases. Only 27 per cent of volunteers are parents of children involved in Scouting, and many volunteers have no previous connection to the movement. "The element of giving something back, to do something beneficial, attracts people," said Ms Lloyd, who by day is a project manager at the Sector Skills Council. "And then people just get hooked. It's hard work, but it's really good fun. And kids get such a bad press these days when for the most part they're fine individuals. Lots of adults get involved in Scouting because they think kids deserve a fairer deal."
The Scout movement was founded in the early 20th century by the military officer Robert Baden-Powell. Its handbook, Scouting for Boys, remains the fourth highest-selling book in history. Worldwide Scouting now has 28 million members, both male and female, and operates in almost every country. In the UK, the number of Scout volunteers is higher than the combined workforce of McDonald's (67,000) and the BBC (24,000).