Charmaine Spencer examines why it is vital to pin down the meaning of mentoring.
BEFORE Noreen Khan was assigned a learning mentor, she looked destined for the education scrap-heap.
She had already taken her first steps toward educational oblivion - bunking off school and being excluded for bad behaviour. Ahead lay a bleak future, with few or no GCSEs, nor the opportunities which accompany them.
But Noreen, 15, a pupil at Hodge Hill girls' school, Birmingham, is a beneficiary of the Learning Mentors scheme, part of the Government's pound;350 million Excellence in Cities programme.
It promised improved pupil performance and, thanks to a holistic approach to children's education, reduced barriers to learning, thereby increasing motivation among less enthusiastic scholars - such as Noreen.
For her, that promise has been kept. She's now studying for eight GCSEs, wants extra lunchtime and after-school lessons and dreams of becoming a hairdresser or a policewoman. Her mentor, she says, turned things around.
"At first, I didn't think very much of my education. I didn't think it really mattered. I used to have a laugh with my mates. Mentoring, talking to someone, has shown me I'm not as dumb as I thought I was.
"If I haven't got an education, I'm not going to get a job. Now I want to get my grades because I know there's a future out there for me and I want to do well for myself."
Before Excellence in Cities, the provision of mentors was ad hoc, dependent on schools finding money from their own budgets. Now the scheme funds an estimated 800 learning mentors in England.
A year after the new cash came on stream, the strengths and weaknesses of the scheme are becoming clear. Lack of a precise and agreed definition of mentoring is one weak point. It's an essential requirement currently taxing a Home Office working party.
With no official guidelines there is confusion over what the job should entail, insiders say. It may mean tutoring in one school, counselling in another, befriending in a third.
Noreen's mentor, Bill Stanley, a former head of year with 22 years' teaching experience, doesn't like the mentor label because, he says, it is undefined.
His definition is "someone who enables a student to do the best they can, who isn't necessarily part of the normal education process, who is acceptable to the mentee as someone they value and who is valued in turn. It's the nature of the relationship that allows the progress to be made."
Would-be mentors must possess certain essential qualities. "They must be good listeners, have a clear view of where the student is at and want the best for them. They also need to understand and accept the values of the school."
Andrew Miller, a Department for Education and Employment adviser, says a definition is needed because "the term is being applied to a wide range of very different activities and means different things to different people".
Insufficient regard is given to the continuity and regularity of external mentoring, says Miller, who believes session times should be a minimum of 12 hours over any time frame.
Workers in the field warn of a confict of roles which can arise from teacher-mentoring. An authority figure in the morning, but a mentor in the afternoon, a teacher could inhibit disaffected pupils who may not see a member of staff as a benign learning partner with whom they can feel comfortable.
The problem is less likely to arise at Hodge Hill where contributions from internal non-teaching staff are actively sought. For instance, the caretaker has, with training, been assigned mentoring duties.
"It is unusual but it's what we had to do," Stanley says. "We had a disengaged student going on work experience with a very negative view of the world outside. We needed an adult who has experienced the world of work, who could motivate, energise and enable her to gain the most from her experience.
"She needed a role model she could actually interact with. She would have looked at teachers in a certain light but already had a good relationship with the caretaker. She had a much better work experience and is now better motivated."
The professional range of individuals who aspire to become learning mentors because of the scheme, is one of its strengths. "They are extraordinary people who come from all walks of life," says Coral Gardiner, learning mentor partnership co-ordinator for Birmingham.
"We have had a black female opera singer, a former solicitor, a former TV Gladiator, former teachers. We all share this common agenda for raising achievement. I'm currently researching whether a common core to the activity of mentoring cuts across professional boundaries, whether it's about human
relationships enabling pupils to do better."
The advantages of teacher mentors are, however, undeniable, says Sheila Boal, mentoring co-ordinator for Knowsley, Merseyside. "They are insiders who understand the teacher's perspective and are more easily accepted by teacher colleagues.
"They may, therefore, make more effective advocates on behalf of young people. They also have detailed knowledge of the education system and school issues." It is important that more schools have a lead learning mentor co-ordinating the activities of internal and external mentors, Miller believes.
"One weakness of mentoring in secondary schools was it was often tagged on to someone's job. A non-teacher spending time on pupils' welfare and development, especially where there's a team of mentors, is better."
The benefits of one-to-one versus group mentoring is an issue of debate in some staffrooms. The former is considered the more effective partnership, though group work, typically two to four pupils per mentor, has its supporters.
There are also concerns about mentors who "over-identify" with their charges, an occurrence which, teachers say, reverses any positive effect on students.
But despite worries and uncertainties, the Government has just announced that it will extend the scheme until 2004. Like social work in the 1960s, mentoring is fast becoming an accepted public service.
Cases like Noreen Khan's underline its potential. But ministers and schools need to learn from the early problems if mentoring is to avoid the same problems and bad publicity.