Liam Burns: ‘Scouts is about developing skills for life, offline and online’

6th May 2020

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

Liam BurnsLike almost every aspect of our normal routines, the weekly gathering of young Scouts has been suspended indefinitely as the UK copes with coronavirus – but that isn’t to say the young tribe will go without. On 19 March, UK Scouting launched a pack of new resources, supported by funding from Nominet, under the banner ‘The Great Indoors’ in order to maintain Scouting during lockdown.  To date, 770,000 families have accessed the resources for inspiration of home-based activities and many also took part in the recent Hike to the Moon fundraising campaign, organised by UK Scouting, which raised £330,000 for the Comic Relief/BBC Children in Need Big Night In.

Liam Burns, Chief Programme Officer at the organisation, is thrilled with the quick work of his colleagues and stresses that the new initiative is so much more than a way to keep youngsters busy. “We knew that face to face scouting activity would cease so we wanted to find a way for people to come together digitally,” he explains. “We are encouraging them to share videos of their activities and are looking into doing a jamboree on the internet. We are also trying to find ways to give young people agency to make a difference, even something as simple as writing a letter to an elderly person in a care home can have an impact. Scouts is about empowering young people and that remains true regardless of the medium of delivery.”

It is also a serious test for the digital approach that the Scouts has been working on for some time. Not only has the organisation been creating digital infrastructure for staff and its volunteers – such as a digital programme-planning tool to help leaders – it has also been developing badges that recognise the importance of digital in the lives of young people today.

“It’s easy to assume the Scouts is just about the great outdoors. While being physically active is a large part of it, we are fundamentally equipping young people with the skills they need for life and empowering them to help other people,” explains Liam. “This is just as important in the digital space as it is offline.” One of the recent projects has been overhauling the Digital Citizenship badge to create something more suitable for the world today, activity funded by Nominet.

“Working with Nominet has been fantastic,” Liam says. “The company didn’t simply pay to get their logo on a badge but has enabled us to do research to better understand digital citizenship. This has allowed us to design a programme which provides skills but also empowers Scouts to do good and behave responsibly when online.”

It’s quite an evolution for an organisation that Liam first encountered – and fell in love with – as a six-year-old. He was a Scout from then until becoming a leader at 18; once at university, he became a volunteer. He has nothing but praise for the movement. “Scouts creates social capital and is a great leveller. At my group, you had people who came from seriously wealthy backgrounds alongside people with very little, but you learnt to respect everyone and work together,” he says. “And you gain so many new skills and can have a go at things you would never have otherwise got to do. It gives you a confidence that lasts your whole life and is definitely the reason that I am so passionate about making a difference.”

He had initially hoped to impact lives by being a doctor but didn’t achieve the required grades. Instead, he studied Physics at university with the idea of training as a teacher but, although he was accepted onto a teacher training scheme, he ended up taking a different path. He explains: “I was involved with Students’ Union at university and became really interested in educational policy. I ended up running for election within the National Union of Students (NUS) and absolutely loved being able to drive changes and advocate on behalf of the wider student body.”

Over five years with NUS he rose to the position of President and found himself enmeshed in educational policy at the highest level, an experience he describes as “brilliant, I have no regrets at all about the path my career has taken.”

As he came to the end of his tenure at NUS, he was aware that his beloved Scouts was undergoing some changes, with a new chief executive overhauling the organisation. “It’s called a movement for a reason,” he says, “it keeps moving because it has too. Amid all the changes, lots of new roles opened up, including one that I was qualified for – and luckily I got it.”

He joined six years ago as Head of Public Affairs, before becoming Head of Policy, Strategy and Innovation. He moved into his current role in April 2018. As Chief Programme Officer, his task is to ensure all programmes deliver the biggest possible positive impact on their young people. Liam is passionate about the mission and sees the Scouts as full of potential for the generation growing up today:

“Scouts is brilliant because the model is so easily scalable. It doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new group – and we have more volunteers than we’ve had in the history of the organisation – but each group can transform the lives of those who get to join. It’s a cheaper way of creating life opportunities for young people, as I try to explain to Government in our external meetings. We are starting as many new groups as possible, conscious to cater to disadvantaged communities and within the poorest boroughs, and we have 60,000 people on our waiting list. That’s incredible when you think of the worrying situation facing the organisation back in the 1990s when it was haemorrhaging members. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”

And while this current suspension of Scout meetings is disruptive, Liam remains optimistic. “The silver lining, on a pretty black cloud admittedly, is that this period will advance our digital capabilities so much more rapidly than under normal circumstances,” he says. “This could propel us on years in terms of what we are able to do digitally. The biggest challenge for an organisation like ours is to be agile and adopt new ideas quickly, but now we’re forced to. Until we can settle back into our Scout huts, we will do all we can to inspire and empower online.”

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