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A steering hand away from trouble

A mentoring project in Birmingham is aiming to halt the rise in exclusions among black pupils. Reva Klein reports

Eight-year-old "Conrad" is a bright boy with a formidable temper. "Sometimes I get mad and beat people up," he confides. "But now I'm not doing that any more."

Conrad is one of 150 pupils involved in Birmingham's Kwesi project, set up to tackle the high incidence of exclusions among African-Caribbean boys.

"If black males have lost belief in themselves, if they feel unwanted in society, their behaviour will manifest that, " says Birmingham graphic designer and supplementary school teacher Guy Woolery who, with primary headteacher Gilroy Brown, founded the project last winter. "And that behaviour will lead to exclusion; then to giving up. But if self-esteem can be addressed from an early age, young people will want to achieve."

Kwesi, an Akan name from Ghana meaning Sunday, as well as the acronym knowledge, wisdom, experience, common sense, insight focuses mainly on boys still in primary school who are heading for trouble, either because of under-achievement or disruptive behaviour.

Birmingham's overall exclusion figures for 1994-95 show a 17.6 per cent increase over the previous year. This is in line with national trends, attributable - at least in part - to both the abolition of indefinite exclusions and the rise in primary exclusions.

The disproportionate representation of African-Caribbean boys in the statistics is another mirrored national trend - while black children make up between 8 and 9 per cent of the pupil population of Birmingham, they account for more than 40 per cent of all exclusions.

Under the Kwesi project, a network of trained and LEA-supported mentors, all of them black men, are matched up with targeted children who they visit weekly at school and sometimes, if they feel it is appropriate, at home. Their job is to show interest in the boys, help to build their self esteem by praising their achievements, however small, give them practical guidance and, probably most importantly, let them know that they're on their side. The mentors are exclusively male because, Brown and Woolery believe, many of these children have no consistent male presence in their lives.

Early intervention and collaboration are they keys. Mentors work closely with heads and teachers, with parents and with the children themselves. As part of their seven-month training, they meet with heads to develop working agreements of what each expects of the other. Says Gilroy Brown: "Mentors are an integral part of the staff structure. It's important that they are seen not as troubleshooters, brought in to act as a buffer between the child and the school, but as someone whose presence is endorsed by the staff and the management."

Since September, Kwesi has placed 30 mentors in 20 primary schools and two secondaries. Some of the children are referred to the project by the head and class teacher. But, explains Guy Woolery, "in some cases, teachers haven't identified children and ask the mentor to go into the class, make observations and point out who looks like he may need help." Once that is done, close liaison with the head leads to setting up a time that the mentor and boy work together.

Mentors and schools are learning as they go along. "We're looking at a variety of ways that the mentor can work with the child: on a one-to-one basis within the classroom, outside the classroom, with the whole class," says Gilroy Brown.

At St James Church of England School in the Handsworth district of the city, headteacher Christine Woodin has arranged for three children to be allocated mentors. "There are very few children who set out to disrupt for fun. Those we're concerned about get themselves into emotional states that can lead to a loss of self control. Of the three who are working with mentors, one has a long history of developmental problems and may be statemented. The other two exhibit emotional problems in their behaviour - they lose their tempers, withdraw into themselves, go into rages. We don't want their problems to escalate."

One of the three is Conrad, who works with mentor Noel Forde. Although he's only had a couple of sessions with "Mr Forde", he feels that something has changed for him. "When someone's picking on me, I tell the teacher so I don't start fighting. Last week when Mr Forde and Mr Bailey (the other mentor at the school) left, I said to the children 'don't bully me anymore'. Every time they come by me, I just move away. All week I've been paying attention to the teacher, working hard and keeping away from the naughty children in the class."

Noel Forde's dealings with Conrad can best be described as affirmative. They talk over the week's events, looking at problem areas, discussing why they arose and how best they might be handled next time. But most of all, there is the over-riding affirmation of all the "good behaviour" that the boy reports back on. In one hour, the child will get more praise from his mentor than he may get in a month from others.

"Often, others look at these children as troublemakers," says Forde. "We want to put positive images of themselves into their heads."

Ronald Ross is working with two boys. John is in Year 6. His low self-esteem has led to disruptive behaviour which has, in turn, led to a number of lunchtime and week-long exclusions at Aston Town Juniors. A trained counsellor and youth worker, Ross is clear about his objectives. "I'm here to empower him, to make him aware of how he gets into trouble and work out with him how to avoid it."

The other boy he mentors, Lawrence, is in Year 5 and has a history of fighting in school. Ronald's presence has already begun to make its mark. "Me and Ronald talk about what I've been doing, if I've been in trouble. It's getting better. I know he's here to help me, to give me advice and to be a friend."

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