Schools don't normally encourage pupils to chat with their friends via email during school hours, but Jack Butcher isn't wasting time when he chats with his friend Alex, using his school's email system.
Jack is a Year 12 economics student at Helena Romanes (Foundation) School and Sixth Form Centre, in Essex, and Alex Rackwitz is his new "e-mentor".
Alex is a second-year economics undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, who has volunteered to give Jack information and advice to help the younger student with his economics studies. Jack is one of nine economics students at Helena Romanes who are being partnered with Cambridge undergraduates as part of a unique scheme set up by Simon Jones, the school's head of careers and economics.
A few months ago, Simon received a letter from Katie Dowbiggin of Emmanuel College at Cambridge. Katie is the college's schools liaison officer, and it is her job to build links with schools in the Essex area and to encourage children from state schools to apply to Cambridge. Her original suggestion was simply to ask Simon if he would like some of his students to attend events and lectures being held at Cambridge. "It was a fairly generic invitation, but I had been mulling over the idea of e-mentors for some time and this seemed like a good opportunity," says Simon.
He got the idea for the e-mentor scheme from the recent development of "business mentors", where experienced business leaders offer advice to people who want to start their own businesses for the first time.
It took some time to set the scheme up, mainly to ensure that each young student was matched with a suitable e-mentor. The safety of the students was a prime concern. "Our students have to use the school email system," Simon points out. "The Cambridge students do the same - that way all the emails can be monitored."
The scheme has only been running for a few weeks, and currently works on a fairly informal basis. The Helena Romanes students can contact their e-mentors whenever they need help with their economics studies. The e-mentors are all economics undergraduates or are studying related subjects and have economics to at least A-level standard.
"The Year 12 students will be doing some work soon on the housing market," says Simon. "That's an ideal opportunity to use the experience of older students."
His students will be asked to do research into areas such as interest rates and house prices, and hopefully their e-mentors will be able to use their knowledge and experience to guide their young proteges. They won't do the actual work for them, but they can give them advice on where to locate the information they need, and explain how that information can be interpreted.
As Simon points out, the Cambridge undergraduates don't just have to rely on their own experience. They have also got the resources of one of the world's great universities available to them. They can even go and ask their own professors for help if necessary. As a busy head of department, Simon says he's not always able to keep up with the latest news and developments in economics, so this link with the University of Cambridge is a valuable additional resource for the Helena Romanes students.
Jack has certainly benefited from his relationship with Alex. He recently had problems with a project that Simon gave him, involving research into the Treasury's methods of compiling inflation-rate figures. "I was asked to give a talk in class and I couldn't find any information," says Jack. "Alex told me about some websites where I could find information, and told me about the Bank of England website. It was really helpful."
Simon says that Jack successfully gave a five-minute talk on the topic, following his discussions with his e-mentor.
It's still early days for the e-mentoring scheme, and Simon plans to conduct a review soon to see how it affects exam results, but he feels confident that the scheme will continue to grow. "The potential of e-mentoring is fantastic. I can imagine communications between economics students in different countries, for instance." It could also be expanded to include students in other subjects.
However, the e-mentoring scheme isn't just about improving exam results.
The hope is that the Helena Romanes students will also get a better understanding of university life through their discussions with their undergraduate mentors, and that this will encourage them to go to university after their A-levels. "A lot of young people have the idea that university undergraduates are completely different," says Katie.
"Especially at Cambridge - they think you're a bit weird. Hopefully, this will take some of the mystery out of the University of Cambridge."
Simon Jones agrees that the opportunity for his students to find out about life at university is useful, as it should take some of the mystery out of the whole experience. "Cambridge wants more people to apply from state schools - and we want our pupils to raise their aspirations," he says.
* Helena Romanes School www.helena-romanes.essex.sch.uk
* Emmanuel College, Cambridge www.emma.cam.ac.uk
The technical requirements for the Helena Romanes e-mentor scheme are straightforward. The students simply use their school's existing system to exchange emails with their Cambridge-based e-mentors. The email software includes standard programs such as Microsoft's Outlook Express, so no additional expense is involved.
The main issues involved with setting up the system relate to safety. The school insists that students don't use personal email addresses to correspond with their mentors. Instead, it issues each pupil with a special address, and the system is equipped with standard monitoring and filtering software so teachers can check the email traffic if they suspect the system is being misused in any way.