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Ancient art of pairing

Lucy Ward looks at a college which uses a radical mentoring scheme to break the cycle of under-achievement in black males. A concept pioneered by ancient civilisations in Egypt, China and Ethiopia is finding new life in inner-city Manchester. Students at City College are the latest beneficiaries of the centuries-old practice of mentoring.

In its broadest sense, the concept involves simply encouraging those furthest advanced in age, work or education to lend advice and support to those with less experience. At City, the idea has been adapted to give a boost to African-Caribbean and Asian students by linking them up with mentors from their own communities.

In an area where black males, in particular, are known to be vanishing from the education and employment map, the scheme aims to improve students' educational and career aspirations.

The lynchpin of the college's mentor service, launched in 1991 and backed with European Social Fund and college cash, is one-to- one pairing of students with appropriate role models, though the project's success has prompted developments including group sessions and work in schools.

All black and Asian students are given the option of joining the scheme, while mentors are found through community contacts and newspaper advertisements, and undergo a screening process.

The matching stage has similarities to the work of a marriage bureau, according to project manager Andy Forbes. "We want people who will listen to each other. Some choose to keep it quite formal. Others are still in touch years on. "

Often the pairing will involve a student and an adult already at work in the career the younger person hopes to pursue, though the Manchester scheme does not put the same emphasis on professional success as the American model on which it is loosely based.

"A positive attitude is what we ask of mentors," says Andy. "The person might be unemployed but using their time profitably, or just holding a family together. There's no point in having someone who comes along and says 'I have a house, a car and I'm earning Pounds 40,000 but I really hate life'."

The mentor's role is not to instruct, but to support students as they make course choices, tackle test assignments, apply to university or simply hit low points. They receive no pay beyond expenses, but gain the satisfaction of putting something back into their community.

The response from the 100 students involved with the scheme since its inception has been overwhelmingly positive, says the project team. The results have shown up in improved attendance and retention rates - a fact welcomed by principal David Gibson, and noted by inspectors in a recent visit.

Trickiest among the hurdles to be overcome has been objection from some quarters - including some black students - over the targeted nature of the project. Some have criticised the exclusion of white youngsters who may need help and support just as badly as their black counterparts. "We understand those feelings," says Andy, "But we feel that just because we are focusing on one group does not mean we are rejecting the difficulties others face. The black community here does have certain special issues - males, in particular, are growing up without any proper contact with people who have gone on and achieved. We need to break that cycle."

A part-time project worker has now been appointed specifically to research the needs of young black men - a group the team has found particularly reluctant to accept the helping hand mentoring represents.

"The key to mentoring is its simplicity," Andy said. "It sounds like a buzz word, but at its heart it's just about passing on experience."

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