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Cool Junior is our dad and best friend;Schools amp; Society

Could mentoring arrest the problem of boys' underachievement? Elaine Carlton reports on the power of positive role models

It was a major blow for Ishmahil Blagrove Jnr when one of the children on his mentoring scheme turned into a gangster. But it only made him more determined to stop other children sliding into the criminal underworld.

He is one of seven people running an unconventional mentoring programme under the umbrella of Extended Family, a black community support group. He aims to provide the children with positive male role models.

To his charges Mr Blagrove, a publisher and partner in a record company, appears to be the ultimate in cool although the tasks he sets them are anything but. Tariq Bedeau, 12 and Vernon Hanley, 13, spend their much of their time cleaning and tidying up.

Mr Blagrove says that the programme is not limited to black children. "There is a lot of crime on the capital's streets and for many inner-city children of all colours their role models have become drug-dealers and gangsters with fast cars and wads of money.

"Often they come from one-parent families and are lacking a positive male influence in their lives.

"There is not much of a future for a young kid who spends time hanging around the street. He will end up a child in an adult world and grow up too fast. Here we can talk to them about their education and what they want to do when they grow up."

He is convinced that he has instilled in most of them a sense of right and wrong and has ensured they will both make a success of their lives. Sadly, one child he mentored took to stealing. As a mentor he was powerless to stop it.

"All the mentors have meetings together where we discuss whether we should inform the children's parents of various worries. But this is a difficult question because we encourage the children to talk openly to us in the faith that what they say will go no further."

This mentoring scheme takes place every day of the holidays and one day at the weekend as well as about three evenings a week during term-time.

Tariq and Vernon look on Mr Blagrove as a cross between their father, brother and best friend.

Both of them live with their mothers and rarely see their fathers so the programme allows them to get a male point of view on everything from schoolwork to sexual relationships.

When they come to his north-west London flat they set about the housework. After helping their mentor to wash up and tidy up, the boys are encouraged to read for up to an hour. Then they are allowed to play games and they plan their evenings. These range from cooking to ice skating, going to the cinema or out for a meal.

Tariq said: "Being with Ishmahil has helped me calm down and behave properly. I had a terrible temper and wasn't hanging around with good company. I was always having fights and got expelled from my primary school.

"Having someone to talk to about everything has helped me a lot. I'm not that good at reading but have got a lot better at it since practising with Ishmahil. If it wasn't for him I might no longer be in school."

* Earlier this year standards minister Stephen Byers promised to tackle boys' underachievement "as a matter of urgency".l Chief inspector Chris Woodhead has called the failure of working-class boys the single biggest problem facing education in Britain.l Boys make up 83 per cent of pupils who are permanently excluded in England and Wales;

* They perform worse than girls on a measure of five good GCSEs in every local authority except one;

* Every year 28,500 boys leave school at 16 without qualifications;

* Boys from African-Caribbean backgrounds are the lowest achievers and are excluded the most.

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