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Ann Limb says movement must become more inclusive and diverse

The Scouting Association has announced that it has elected Ann Limb, 62, a former senior civil servant and teacher, as its first female chair. And she says her priority is to get more girls and young women into the uniform.

“The image of Scouts as being white, middle-class boys in khaki shorts is not encouraging young women to join,” Limb told the Observer.

The daughter of a butcher in Manchester’s tough Moss Side district, Limb said inclusivity for girls was something she had championed all her working life.

“We want to grow the numbers of girls and young women, and scouting has to reflect society. When I was young, there was a certain type of person who went to Brownies or Guides or Scouts. That is changing.”

The unanimous decision by the board of trustees represents a change of direction for the country’s largest youth movement, which already has more than 500,000 children signed up as Scouts, although only around a fifth of them are girls.

Limb said she felt strongly that bringing more girls into mixed-sex youth groups was the way forward.

With TV explorer Bear Grylls as Chief Scout, the movement’s figurehead, the Scouting Association is still keen to hang on to its reputation for fun and adventure, but also as a force for good in communities.

“We want to be a more inclusive movement in a more diverse movement. It’s about growth and it would be nice to see a million Scouts,” Limb said. “The position of young girls and women is such at the moment that unless young boys understand what it’s like to be a young woman then you won’t get them to change their behaviour.”

Limb said that far from being outdated, Scouting and what it offered children was more vital than ever.

“In these young lives there’s a digital revolution, but also a social revolution. As adults we are digital immigrants, while anyone under 15 is a digital native, and how they interact socially is completely different, so it’s more important than ever that we listen.

“There’s so much pressure on them at school – sometimes from their parents – that their lives are so complicated.”

With lengthy waiting lists to join Scout groups across the country, Limb also has to tackle the issue of a shortage of volunteer leaders as the traditional pool of parents comes under increasing pressures for their time.

“I think it’s baby boomers – the over-55s – to whom we need to be looking to pick up the gauntlet and help out. They are the demographic more likely to have time on their hands. You don’t have to be running a group every Tuesday night to be playing a worthwhile part.

“We also have to challenge the corporate world to engage more with volunteering. We need a cultural change. Being in the Brownies when I was a child made a huge difference to me; it taught me self-esteem, gave me a belief in myself. It wasn’t like school; it didn’t matter if you failed, you could have another go.

“But the most impressive thing was that I saw women who gave up their time to help. If people give up their time to do something for you, that’s a very powerful experience,” she said.

As a Quaker, Limb took advantage of the Scouts’ progressive “alternative promise” when she was invested last week. Brought in last year, it allows young people to join the Scouts without promising a “duty to God”.

“We have to keep moving forward to keep our core values of allowing young people fun and adventure, and changing lives in their communities. But no one need worry – we’re not dumping the campfires by any means; everyone loves a fire!”