Chopped down: The Woodcraft Folk

They were founded as a socialist alternative to the Scouts. Now The Woodcraft Folk's state subsidy has been axed by a Labour government, a move that may kill the organisation, reports Terry Kirby
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They were part of the great growth of the Labour movement in the 1920s, founded for young people by idealistic socialists as an alternative to the growing militarisation of Scouting. Their aim was to develop a new social order and sustain world peace, by introducing the children of the poor from urban slums to the joys of exercise, fresh air and the countryside.

They were part of the great growth of the Labour movement in the 1920s, founded for young people by idealistic socialists as an alternative to the growing militarisation of Scouting. Their aim was to develop a new social order and sustain world peace, by introducing the children of the poor from urban slums to the joys of exercise, fresh air and the countryside.

Now, a Labour government has told the Woodcraft Folk, which is mostly run by volunteers, that it will no longer be receiving the small state subsidy that has helped sustain it for more than 40 years, putting the organisation's future in doubt.

More than 50 Labour MPs have signed an early-day motion, calling for the decision to be reversed. The motion was organised by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour member for Islington North, who regularly supports Woodcraft activities in his constituency. Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, has refused to meet Woodcraft representatives.

In ending the annual grant of £52,000, the Department of Education and Skills said the Woodcraft Folk'sclaim for funding lacked detail and did not have "sufficiently robust outcome indicators". which meant that it did not represent "good value for money''.

The organisation, which was shocked by the rejection, was yesterday deeply critical of the Government. Stewart Hunter, a lawyer and the vice-chairman of the Woodcraft Folk, said: 'We do not believe that it is acceptable that at a time when the Government is trying to encourage the voluntary sector and encouraging the participation of young people in the wider world, that our grant should be stopped. I do not believe they cannot find sufficient funding for us from somewhere.'' He added: "It does seem quite strange. They seem to be acting as though we are some kind of new organisation, not a body that they have been helping in various means for 40 years. It is not as though they don't know us. And usually, in situations like this, if there isn't enough information on an application they will come back and ask for clarification, rather than just reject it out of hand.''

The money helped fund Woodcraft's five full-time staff and its headquarters costs, and amounted to around 20 per cent of its income; the remainder derives from subscriptions, donations and help from bodies such as the Co-operative Society, with which the organisation has always been closely linked. Mr Hunter added: "We don't really have any means of raising that amount of money, so at the moment I don't know what we will do.''

Some in Woodcraft have suggested that the ending of the grant might also be related to the organisation's strong opposition to the conflict in Iraq. Although the organisation has always had strong links to the peace movement, it actively campaigned against the Iraq war through its website and by members attending anti-war demonstrations under the Woodcraft banner. A newspaper advertisement relating to its members attending the major anti-war march in early 2003 led to a reminder from the Charity Commission about overstepping its role.

One other suggestion for the failure of the grant application is that Woodcraft was failing to help "disadvantaged" children, which may reflect the perception that it has, in many parts of the country, become a largely-middle class body dominated by the children of professional parents. Woodcraft has about 3,000 adult and 9,000 child members. However, this was rejected yesterday by the Folk, who stressed that while the organisation had seen a "drift" towards a largely middle-class membership in some areas, it had members from all social backgrounds and that it ran open-access schemes in south London and Birkenhead which attracted children from deprived areas.

Claire Jackson, a building surveyor and one of the leaders of a group in Highgate, north London, said that the loss of the grant could have a serious knock-on effect. ''We are all volunteers and Woodcraft is run at a very low cost already. This is almost certain to reduce the support we get from head office and will be quite destabilising.''

She rejected the suggestion that the movement had become increasingly dominated by middle-class parents: "It varies from group to group and reflects the level of commitment you are able to bring. Some groups are based around schools and have a much wider social mix, while others are not parent-led at all."

Most of the activity of Woodcraft revolves around weekly meetings at which children can play games, work on drama and arts projects or go on nature walks and picnics. There are regular camping weekends and weeks away, many of which are at one of six Woodcraft outdoor centres or two camping sites; these usually involve walking, camp fires and other outdoor pursuits. These centres are also open to schools and other youth groups. Woodcraft values are an important part of the organisation and focus around co-operative, democratic ideals, peace and care for the environment. During camping weekends, children are expected to share all cooking and cleaning duties equally with adults. Child members are known as Woodchips, Elfins, Pioneers and Venturers as they grow older. The basic concept is only a slightly more contemporary version of the vision of Woodcraft's founder, Leslie Paul, in the 1926 book Who's For the Folk. Writing as The Headman ("Little Otter"), he said: 'The Woodcraft Folk seek to establish a new social order. They believe that when the worker achieves freedom from wage slavery and the fruits of soil are garnered by the toilers, then will a new stage of development open out to man. A new epoch, rich in promise of a finer social life and a greater awakening of intellect.

"We are rebels ... and to this decadent civilisation, we bring a new fire and a new energy. We go out of the town and away to the hills and woods with our little light-weight tents packed in our rucksacks ... after the ugliness and monotony of the smoky city we find new life among the green growing things and new health from the sun and the four winds. And this health, together with our understanding, enables us to fight tenaciously for social betterment.''

Paul's vision does take on a slightly ominous tone: "And we take the children of the workers - those children who would go under in the industrial struggle but for the health and knowledge we give them - and we make them into world citizens and real life individuals away in the green wood. The heritage of strength and courage they receive will help them to carry on the fight ... In the Woodcraft Folk movement, you will find vigorous men and women, sunburnt youths and maidens and energetic boys and girls who are living simply and thinking keenly and who have not mistaken slavery to the machine for human progress.'' Although Woodcraft is firmly socialist-inspired, a similar dedication to the idea of the Volk, or Folk, and towards healthy lifestyles leading to a superior type of person would inspire Germany's National Socialist movement. Paul concludes: "You can't build an A1 Commonwealth from C3 people.''

Paul, a writer and lecturer from south London, founded the Woodcraft alongside members of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in south London in 1925, when he was in his early 20s. He had previously been a member of the Kibbo Kift movement, which was started by John Hargraves, a scoutmaster, as a reaction against the Scout movement's increasinglymilitaristic tendencies, with its oaths of allegiance to God, king and country.

Hargraves drew his ideas from American-inspired visions of living in woods and woodcraft training as epitomising higher ideals of existence. However, Hargraves was considered autocratic, leading to Paul's breakaway movement, aimed at becoming more democratic and internationalist.

Paul's ideals were closely linked to other aspects of the socialist movement and like the Ramblers' Association, which began at around the same time, was founded in the belief that the new means of transport such as buses, trams and trains could be used to transport the masses from the slums to the countryside and help them improve their health and welfare as a result. Elements of Christian Socialism, the Workers Education Association and the Co-operative movement all inspired and were linked to Woodcraft.

Mr Corbyn said last night: "Woodcraft is a brilliant movement that has helped introduce thousands of children to co-operative ideas and it is a great shame that the Government is using the competitive argument to deny its grant. The decision must be reversed.''

A world of camp fires, songs and innocent idealism

By Michael Williams

It was a levelling experience in absolutely every sense, standing in a sodden field in Dorset at 7am trying to cook 50 poached eggs in lukewarm water, helped by the leader of a left-wing council, a Communist-leaning theatre impresario, a teenage delinquent and a couple of shivering six-year-olds. No one could pull rank, because we were the Woodcraft folk.

From the moment we stepped into that field for Camden Woodcraft's annual camp, the rules were unambiguous: we were all equals - young and old, advantaged and disadvantaged, whether we thought we were smart, or not. It was "inclusiveness" long before the Walworth Road apparatchiks stumbled across the word.

As a middle-class north London media type, I suppose I was an unlikely recruit as a youth leader for an organisation founded 80 years ago by the Labour Party, which seemed like a cross between Outward Bound, the Cooperative Movement and Lord of the Rings. Moreover, I had fled the whole idea of youth groups at age 11 after the Church Lads' Brigade had tried to recruit me from the Cubs, and Akela accused the vicar of backing the Hitler Youth.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was precisely why the Woodcraft came about - as a split from Scouting by people who believed a wholesome outdoors movement, free of the jingoistic ideas of Baden Powell, or allegiance to the Crown or God, was preferable for their children. And it was my thoroughly modern daughters who dragged me in. They didn't think Woodcraft's aim "to create a world built on equality, friendship, peace and cooperation" was in any way old-fashioned.

And so for years we'd pack our tents to spend summer weeks in soggy fields, living in a parallel world of "clans" called "Woodchips" and "Elfins", playing "cooperative" games which no one could win, learning to navigate by the stars and being bossed about by infants delighted they had been awarded the same rights as their parents. On the last night, with the sparks from the camp fire streaming into the sky, we'd strum along to the Woodcraft Songbook, singing "This Land is My Land" - and convince ourselves that the world wasn't such an unfair place after all.

This is the charm of Woodcraft - that it is still infused with a fast-vanishing, innocent idealism, untainted by political correctness. In that sense you can see why it is probably anathema to Margaret Hodge and her friends.