LEARNING mentors may offer a solution to the discipline problems plaguing Britain's schools.
Anne Hayward, a behaviour consultant who has been evaluating mentors and the home-school links they forge, believes they fill a vital intermediate role.
"They aren't teachers, so they aren't seen as judgmental by the children," said Ms Hayward, who carried out the evaluation for the Department for Education and Skills. "The mentors do not represent social services, and there's no fear that a problem will lead to a child being taken into care."
Learning mentors were introduced as part of the Excellence in Cities programme. They work with individual children in and out of school.
A mentor may also work with groups, in lunchtime or after-school clubs, but the focus is on the home-school link.
They are likely to attract more attention following this month's report by David Bell, the chief inspector, which suggested that almost every school in England has children with serious behaviour problems.
In Bristol, primaries have been using mentors for the first time as part of the Government's pound;66 million Behaviour Improvement Programme.
Teachers have welcomed them as "a breath of fresh air".
The unambiguous endorsement comes from Angela White, a deputy head on secondment to the project from Connaught junior. "We've said for a long time that the problems begin outside school," said Ms White. "We've needed someone to make contact with the family. Mentors do that."
The government programme to tackle poor behaviour in schools facing the toughest problems was launched last April. Thirty-four local authorities were given pound;1.5m each to support schools and pupils.
Bristol channelled the cash into four school clusters serving the city's most challenging areas which faced high crime, absenteeism and poor pupil behaviour.
Measures ranging from learning mentors to in-house police patrols were introduced. "If we can reduce the number of serious incidents we'll reduce the exclusion rate," said Brigid Allen from the authority's behaviour support service.
The back-up being offered to the four clusters includes behaviour and education support staff, but mentors are a key element of the Bristol project. They smooth the passage through school and liaise with other children's services.
Secondary schools in the city already had mentors, through Excellence in Cities funding. But until last year primaries had been left out of the picture.
In Bristol's Hengrove cluster, secondary and primary mentors are working together. "That should allow for a smooth transition when it comes to transfer," said Hengrove school's head Stephen Murtagh. He thinks the local authority's approach has been "very useful".
Anne Hayward believes the combination of individual support for the child, added to the BEST mix of educational psychologists, mental health workers and education welfare officers, offers a real solution to schools'
"We need to spend more time with children," she said. "And children say that mentors give them more time and space."
One of the primary mentors, Sharon King, thinks that it's about "helping children make sense of the adult involvement in their lives". As a primary mentor she is working with five children who were poor attenders. Three have not missed a day since she became involved with them.
Currently, mentors come from a range of backgrounds. In Bristol, some were youth workers, others were educational welfare officers, play workers or classroom assistants. A few have teaching experience.
"Their background is less important than the skills and understanding they bring to the job," said Angela White. Nevertheless, a professional qualification could be on the horizon. Anne Hayward is working with the DfES to develop what she describes as a "route for professional progress".
Proposals could be in place by the autumn.
Meanwhile, Ms Hayward thinks that all schools should be thinking about the potential that learning mentors offer. "This is what schools have been crying out for - access to other child services and someone with the time to knit everything together," she said.
www.annehayward.com Information on mentors, including the guidance written by Anne Hayward for the DfES, can be seen at: www.standards.dfes.gov.ukexcellencepoliciesMentors