Learning mentors, who offer personalised support to pupils who are deemed to need it, are one of education's success stories. Since they were introduced in the Nineties as part of the Excellence in Cities initiative, they now work in schools across the country. Research shows that mentors have a positive effect on behaviour, attendance and achievement: mentored pupils are one-and-a-half times more likely to get five GCSEs grades A* to C than similar pupils without a mentor.
So what is it that mentors do? It boils down to helping pupils on an individual basis. Exactly what this means varies from school to school, and mentors may also liaise with parents, observe lessons or run study groups and homework clubs.
The children they work with can be chosen for all sorts of reasons - low self-esteem, a need to catch up after illness, or just general disaffection with school. The mentor offers one-to-one support and tries to get things back on track. At primary level, the focus is usually on developing social and emotional skills; at secondary level, it's more about promoting good study habits and getting pupils motivated.
Mentoring is personal and engaging - and often less stressful than working at the classroom frontline. This means that competition for posts can be fierce.
Lynne Morelli, lead learning mentor at Nottingham City Council, says it's not unusual to get 60 or 70 applicants for a vacancy. "Mentoring is high profile now. Typical applicants might include teaching assistants, youth workers, people from business or young graduates who are thinking about teaching but want a taste of what schools are like."
So how do you stand out from the crowd? In terms of qualifications, there's not much you can do - all learning mentors are trained as part of a national programme, but you can't access that training until you're in the job. In any case, this is a post where qualifications count less than experience. "I sometimes get inquiries from people with first-class degrees, but absolutely no experience of working with young people," says Ms Morelli. "My advice to them is to get their Criminal Records Bureau check and do some voluntary work, perhaps helping children to read."
Learning mentors are employed by individual schools and jobs are advertised in local papers and on council websites. Mentors generally earn more than teaching assistants but less than teachers. However, some schools only pay mentors during term-time, so make sure you read the small print. And be aware there's not much scope for promotion, although in a school with several mentors, one will usually be appointed team leader.
Many learning mentors go on to become teachers, often through the graduate teacher programme. Kahlia Laws took up a teaching job at Kingstone High School in Herefordshire last September, after working there for four years as a learning mentor.
"In my case, I was already a qualified teacher when I took up the mentoring job," she explains. "But I had a young child and didn't want to bring work home.
"Mentoring really suited me. I spent a lot of time working with Year 11s on coursework and revision and I was lucky because the school gave me free rein - I could pull children out of class when I thought it necessary.
"I met a boy I used to mentor who's now doing well at an agricultural college. School wasn't his thing, but by setting him small, regular targets, I was able to get him through and that meant he could move on to something he enjoys. Working one-to-one with pupils allows you to make a difference in a way that's not always possible with a class of 30."
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WHERE YOU STAND
- Salary: No national salary scale, but typically ranges from Pounds 14,000 to Pounds 24,000.
- Next steps: To get experience, try some voluntary mentoring work. Either approach schools directly or contact an organisation.
- Visit: www.timebank.org.ukmentoring, www.break-charity.orggovolunteer_mentors, www.csv.org.uk and www.mandbf.org.uk.
- Key qualities: Communication skills. Ability to strike up a rapport with children who may not be feeling positive about school.