When I was 19 years old, I attended a meeting for a youth group I intended to volunteer with while at university. Much to my surprise, I was asked by a parent: ‘Why are you here if you don’t have kids?’ I was told that I couldn’t know how to be responsible for children because I didn’t have my own.
This was an extreme example of the distrust many people feel about adult-child relationships. But many adult volunteers will have experienced similar things – and it seems to be having an impact. Last week, the Guardian reported that the number of adults volunteering for youth groups has hit at a record low, with 51,000 young people on waiting lists to join the Scouts because of volunteer shortages. Kids who want to join community groups are unable to because there are simply not enough adults to supervise.
There are many reasons why adults might not be willing to give up their spare time to volunteer with youth groups. But the fact they’re treated like wrong-doers before they even begin definitely has something to do with it. The Savile scandal has heightened an already prevalent panic about child sexual abuse, instilling even more fear in parents and caregivers about their kids’ relationships with other adults. Alongside these attitudinal barriers, volunteers have to overcome difficult statutory and procedural hurdles in order to start volunteering.
Put simply, we don’t have a positive culture of volunteering in the UK. It can take months for an adult to be screened by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) – then there’s safeguarding training, seeking references and finding a suitable place to volunteer. It’s hardly surprising that most adults aren’t willing to put themselves through this arduous process.
As a result, youth organisations are struggling to recruit enough motivated, quality leaders to keep up with demand. And it’s not just the Scouts. This is also the case in smaller youth organisations and local youth groups.