THE Co-op Movement's educational charity for young people faces a battle for survival after being denied central government funding for the first time in 40 years.
The Woodcraft Folk and its 9,000 members around the country have launched a campaign to reverse the decision after being informed by the Department for Education and Skills that their grant aid is being ended for at least the next three years because it "does not represent good value for money."
General Secretary Andy Piercy told the News that the cut-backs ? which will also affect other national children's organisations ? were particularly ironic, given that 2005 has been designated the Year of the Volunteer.
"It's really bad," said Mr Piercy. "In terms of funds from central government, we will go from £ 52,000 a year to zero straight away and, unless the decision is changed, it could well mean redundancies among our five permanent staff.
"Even when we were politically capped under the Tories for 18 years, we received grants of £ 32,000 a year. We just feel stunned and let down by this announcement, especially as the Welsh Assembly has increased its funding to £ 25,000 and the Scottish Parliament voted us £ 11,500 ? even though the vast majority of our members live in England."
Added Mr Piercy: "I am writing to every Labour MP to try to get this decision reversed and hope the Co-op Party will be able to help, too. We will be looking at all other fund-raising options and if it wasn't for the support of the Co-op Movement we would really be in dire straits."
The Woodcraft Folk, which is due to celebrate its 80th anniversary this year, has received grant money from central government every year since the 1960s.
Since 1983, the money for work in England has come from the National Voluntary Youth Organisations Grant Scheme. The £ 52,000 annual grant represents around 20 percent of total income to the Folk's head office in London.
Jess Cawley, chair of the Woodcraft Folk's General Council, shares Andy Piercy's outrage and disbelief.
He said: "How can we not be good value for money? We have just five paid staff. The other 3,000 youth leaders in our organisation give their time, energy and enthusiasm entirely free of charge."
Unless there is a change of heart in government, the Folk will have to make tough choices about how to move forward with its nationally recognised work with young people ? work that goes well beyond its 9,000 members.
Woodcraft Folk educational materials are widely used by teachers and youth leaders and its "Playout" project targets hard-to-reach young people in deprived areas with play activities open to the whole community.
The organisation also operates a string of campsites and residential facilities across the country that are used by school and community groups.
Mr Piercy says that in addition to the campaign to influence MPs, local Woodcraft Folk branches have been urged to seek funding and sponsorship opportunities in their own areas, but it is unlikely that this could fill the gap.
Already, the loss of the grant has meant that the organisation has had to drop its annual grants to Woodcraft Folk groups across the country for training and development work.