Mentors deliver the Basildon bond

Emma Burstall

Gillian Wensley was convinced her dyslexia meant she had no hope of getting a decent job when she left school.

But after hearing her mentors, one of whom is dyslexic, talk animatedly about their working lives, the 15-year-old's attitude has changed. Gillian attends Chalvedon School in Pitsea, part of Basildon, Essex. She is one of 120 children at the 1,500-pupil comprehensive who are taking part in the Basildon Bonus scheme.

This is aimed at helping under-performing pupils aged 14 to 18 find work. It will be discussed at the British Urban Regeneration Association conference, which will be highlighting the Government's planned Education Action Zones, this September.

Mentoring is vital to the Basildon scheme. Around 20 businesses, including Marks Spencer, send employees into schools to talk to pupils about their jobs.

Gillian's two mentors - both women - are from Basildon District Council.

"It's great because they're only in their early 20s and understand what we're about," Gillian said. "I thought I'd never be able to get a decent job because I'm dyslexic, but they've shown me if I try I can do whatever I want."

Basildon Bonus, now in its third year, is the brainchild of Chalvedon head Alan Roache and Mike Williamson, manager of South West Essex Business and Education Partnership.

The two men gained funding from the Government's Single Regeneration Budget to run the scheme for seven years.

Mr Williamson, who is employed by Essex Training and Enterprise Council, is convinced the scheme works and could be reproduced elsewhere.

"It's too early to evaluate properly as the first students haven't left school yet. But the feedback we are getting from these young people is that it has been a big help. The schools say it has improved attitudes, attendance and performance, and local businesses say it's very useful," he said.

Pitsea badly needed a boost. The town has the worst juvenile crime rate in Essex, while Basildon town centre has the worst juvenile unemployment rate.

There are also many single-parent families, and pupils who receive free school meals.

As well as mentoring, the scheme involves extra periods of work experience and involvement with community-based projects.

One advantage of the scheme is its low cost. The Government has pledged Pounds 820,000 over seven years, which must be match-funded.

"The money is a drop in the ocean, but what you get out is amazing," Mr Williamson said.

John Robb, the chief executive of Basildon District Council and chair of the Bonus Partnership Board, which oversees the scheme, is equally enthusiastic.

"There's no doubt the scheme works," he said. "Many low-achieving children lack self-esteem because no one has ever paid them much attention. With mentoring, their confidence over a period of time increases tremendously and my people benefit from the staff development opportunities provided."

Head Alan Roache says: "Because of high unemployment some of my pupils will be the only person in the family to get up and go to work. They desperately need positive role models."

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Emma Burstall

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