Mentors for schoolchildren

10 June 2009
The Times
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Of all my pupils, Carly Springham, 17, isn’t the sort that you’d think would need mentoring. She doesn’t fit the stereotype of the truculent kid who’s languishing at the bottom of the class, chucking bits of paper at the teacher and yelling at anyone who annoys her. She’s a quiet, hard-working student who’s got good GCSEs, comes from a stable home background and is doing reasonably well in her second year in the sixth form at the large comprehensive school where I teach in London’s suburbs. However, she is adamant that mentoring has really helped her to improve her grades, her work and her attitude to her studies.

“Before I started going to see my learning mentor I was doing OK at my subjects, but I wasn’t doing my best. I was coasting a bit, getting C grades when I should be aiming for Bs and As,” she confessed to me, after she showed me a good piece of homework. As her English teacher, I’d highlighted in her grades for effort that she wasn’t trying as hard as she could, and this had led to her gaining a learning mentor at my school.

The headteacher, David Mansfield, has recently hired learning mentors not because the school is stuffed full of under-achieving layabouts – it isn’t, it gains some of the best results in the country – but because recent government research has shown that mentoring can make average pupils exceptional.

“Parents shouldn’t think that mentoring is simply for students who are at the bottom of the pile,” he told me. “Mentoring can really help those pupils who are perhaps achieving B grades but who should be getting A*s. The reason why it works is that it is an excellent way of making a student more ‘accountable’. The one-on-one attention students get when they are mentored means that they get to review their work in a non-threatening fashion, and then set clear, achievable targets to improve the situation.”

This is exactly how one of our learning mentors, Samantha King, is with her students: relentlessly positive. “I see my role as breaking down the barriers between pupils and teachers. I never punish my mentees; I listen to them, absorb as much as I can about their lives and set realistic targets, which I check up on every week,” she says.

“I love going to see Mrs King because she never tells me off!” Carly says. “I can be honest and say what’s going on in my life; tell her that I’ve been lazy or I’ve got other things on my mind, and she’ll help me to devise a timetable that will get me out of a fix. She has really helped me to stop feeling overwhelmed by all the work I have to do for my A levels.” Carly’s life, like many teenagers, is also full of other distractions: she works ten hours a week in a shoe shop, takes driving lessons, socialises with friends, shops for clothes, and chats at length on MSN.

Helping students to fulfil their potential

Having taught for nearly 20 years, I realise that Carly’s point is extremely salient to many good pupils: while they might be doing pretty well, they are not fulfilling their true potential because their time-management skills, in a world so full of distractions, are poor. As a result, these pupils, particularly high-achieving girls, tend to work in a blind panic and, despite producing satisfactory work, end up hating the process. A good mentor can bring the enjoyment back to school work simply by guiding a pupil to organise their life in a better fashion.

Many mentors come from backgrounds outside teaching, which means they bring a fresh perspective for many pupils. Samantha King, who has worked in the corporate world for many years, naturally commands the pupils’ respect because she is able to show how crucial time-management is in any decent job. She says: “Mentoring for teenagers does involve quite a bit of careers advice. For example, I’ve mentored some pupils who are working in paid employment for many hours each week and I’ve explained to them that although they may be getting good money now, in the long run, they’ll miss out if they don’t get a good degree.”

Some schools have gone one step farther and arranged for their pupils to have “professional mentors”; this is when a pupil is hooked up with a successful professional in a job that the teenager aspires to. The charity African and Caribbean Diversity (www.acdiversity.org), which assists inner-city children from African and Caribbean backgrounds, has developed a hugely successful programme of professional mentoring, where bright pupils from inner-city London schools are mentored by high-flyers.

One such luminary is Peter Jaffe, the executive director in risk at the investment bank JP Morgan, who has been the mentor of Jordan Douglas White, an A-level student at Kingsbury High School, in South London, for the past two years. The experience has beenrewarding for both of them. Thanks in part to his mentoring, Jordan achieved top grades in his GCSEs and is on track to studying computer science at a leading university.

Jaffe says: “Jordan and I took part in what is known as professional team mentoring. This is where a pupil is ‘shared’ between two mentors, where two mentors see Jordan once a month. The scheme is co-ordinated by ACD but involves the school and parents as much as possible. It gave Jordan real variety, seeing different parts of the bank. I found it a rewarding experience: I am now definitely plugged into the younger generation.”

The benefits for Jordan have been enormous: he has gone to museums and galleries with his mentor, as well as talking about all the key issues in his life, and the way he organises his time, his ambitions. He says: “I tend to slack off slightly, but my mentor has been able to tell me about organising my time in a much better way. I won £50 because my mentor helped to prepare a presentation on selling a laptop. I think it has really improved my confidence.”

It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. The corporate institutions involved realise that they need to be in touch with the talent of tomorrow and to foster their enthusiasm and skill, while the students gain a significant insight into the high-powered workplace.

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to line up a good “adult” mentor for pupils who are under-achieving. One way round this is to set up “peer” mentoring programmes, where an older pupil mentors a younger one within strict parameters. Having trialled it in my own school, this can be tremendously successful. In my role as head of English in a large comprehensive, I arranged for a number of slack 16-year-old students to be assigned sixth-form mentors to help them with their English.

My instructions to mentors and students were clear and precise: they were to meet twice a week in their own time for 10-20 minutes and discuss the set texts on the syllabus. I was very pleasantly surprised when some of my naughtiest students were raving about it.

One previously surly teenager enthused to me: “Sir, I met my mentor today and I think I understand Thomas Hardy for the first time in my life!” However, I know that the whole exercise would have flopped if I hadn’t set out what had to be done very exactly and precisely. Without this vital effort, it all can become a waste of time. But if everyone is fully committed, mentoring can transform children’s futures, no matter what their background.

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