Adult shoulders a pupil can rely on

They call them mentors, the growing army of people from all walks of life ready to help pupils with difficulties. Harvey McGavin reports.

In a world where public figures disappoint us every day, positive role models are rare. For young people, the need for someone to lead by example has never been greater.

Mentoring has been around since Plato took Socrates under his wing. In recent years, interest in informal counselling has taken off in new and unexpected ways. Peter Collins of Salford Compact, and co-ordinator of the National Mentoring Network, says the boom in mentoring schemes can be attributed to a simple formula. "It's about someone who wants help and someone who wants to give help I It's not a teacher telling you what to do - it's about two people who form a friendship over time "They might have educational goals or personal goals but children become motivated because their friend wants them to do well. It's a perfect example of the power of one person's influence over another. "

Mr Collins estimates that there are some 250 mentoring programmes nationwide; around half of them are in schools.

One such scheme in Norfolk is helping to widen pupils' horizons beyond the flat landscape of their home county.

"This is a very rural community with pockets of industry," explains Mike Hodkinson, who supports mentoring schemes in 16 schools.

"For a lot of the youngsters motivation is tied up with their employment prospects. We want to say to them there's lots to do outside Norfolk instead of just getting a job in Norwich. Not that we want all our youngsters to move out of Norfolk, but there does seem to be in a lot of them an underlying feeling that this is all there is."

More than 100 employees from local firms such as Norwich Union, Eastern Electricity and Sedgwick, an insurance brokers, volunteered to help. Vic Sedgwick, the family firm's training manager, describes it as a "win-win situation" that works for both parties - the pupils get a glimpse of the world of work, and his staff get to improve their communication skills.

Cathy Wade, careers officer at Cliff Park High School in Great Yarmouth, said underachievement among girls is a problem. A year after starting a mentoring scheme, 60 per cent of the girls did better than expected at GCSE, and the project has been extended to boys.

Heathside School in Weybridge, Surrey, operates a pupil self-help scheme, sponsored by Toshiba, who pay for 30 Year 11 (1516-year-old) pupils to attend a one-day counselling training session run by Cynthia Jones, a psychology lecturer at Kingston University, Surrey.

Then, the Year 11 pupils are assigned to each Year 7 (1112-year-old) class in teams of three to act as mentors; individual pupils who need help have daily chats with their personal mentor.

"We were trying to get the message across that 'it's not bad to be good', said the scheme's co-ordinator, Gerry O'Connell. "Positive peer pressure is a good thingI Youngsters really do feel far more comfortable talking to someone of their own age group."

It's also a preventative measure. One of the most common problems - falling out with friends - can be quickly resolved in a mentoring sessions. "Teachers often don't have the time or the patience to talk with them about their problems. The mentors can stop things escalating into problems like bullying" Eighty three per cent of the younger pupils agreed the scheme was a great help in stopping bullying; one third of them said their mentor would be the first person they would turn to in times of trouble. For the pupil-mentors, there is a boost in confidence, communications skills and a plus on their CVs.

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