Case study: the learning mentor

24th June 2005 at 01:00
In June 1994, if anyone was to ask me I liked school, the answer would have been a swift and feisty "no". There would also have been sniggers of agreement from my peers. But in truth my school years were nothing short of magical. Burlington Danes school in west London had become my "Land of Oz" and I spent five years walking, running and tripping down its Yellow Brick Road.

Whether it was the older alpha males schooling me about "courage", the numerous girls telling me to use my "heart", or the quirky nerds trying to stimulate my brain, school was great. And the wizard within the Emerald City who, with my parents, helped to infuse all of my newly acquired skills, knowledge and experiences? My form tutor and English teacher of five years, Philip Dawson. All their patience and imagination was nothing short of magical.

Ten years later, with a degree in education and social policy tucked under my arm, I've returned as a learning mentor. However, working in a school in special measures - as Burlington Danes now is - is as challenging and as stimulating as it gets. The rewards cannot be measured.

My job is to target disaffected pupils; to break down their emotional and behavioural barriers so they can access the curriculum. Some sceptics may say that mentoring is the political term for "getting kids back into the classroom and controlling them". Maybe they're not too far off the mark, for mentors often feel they are only valued within schools when they have to handle disruptive children. Our role is not always understood and, as a consequence, we are not used as well as we should be. A teacher's primary objective is to educate pupils about the curriculum; a learning mentor's is to educate children to become pupils. The key is to create a harmonious balance between the two; both professions should be trying to achieve the same objective, a positive and productive school environment, something that is now being realised within Burlington Danes.

Take, for example, a Year 11 child I'm currently working with. He was aggressive, disruptive and often excluded. I worked exceptionally hard with him; motivating him to do his coursework while discussing social issues relevant to him. For instance, I used Macbeth as a tool for him to challenge his negative behaviour. We looked at the play together from the perspective that there are more honourable methods to obtain the crown.

It's a standpoint he now understands.

The amount of time I spent with him has paid off: he has grown into a more focused and a generally pleasant pupil. He's predicted to leave school with at least four GCSEs and has not been excluded since we started working together. But I can only do what I do because of the patience and trust of the school and of his parents. One is interested in the educational well-being of their pupil, the other in the well-being of their child.

But in truth, I wish Burlington Danes didn't have learning mentors. To me it only serves to highlight the many social issues - such as Afro-Caribbean boys slipping off the educational ladder - seeping into schools. I understand where these boys are coming from; I can give them a gentle nudge away from the MTV culture that seems to be the influencing factor in their lives. But I've got to be honest: not all the cases are as pleasant as my Year 11 success. Sometimes the disaffection is so cancerous that all you can do is pray.

Initially, I studied for my degree intending to become a teacher, but many staff here tell me that if I do I'll lose my special relationship with the children. Perhaps that's because teachers are hampered by the lack of imaginative autonomy the curriculum allows them. If this is the case, surely mentors can help bridge that gap, providing them with the help and support they need.

Corie Stephenson is a learning mentor at Burlington Danes CE school in the London borough of Hammersmith Fulham

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