Catch them when they fall

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Family breakdown, conflict, sickness and addiction can disrupt children's education. Nick Morrison meets the learning mentors who are there to help

It could almost be a comic-strip gallery, but the photographs of children pulling exaggerated expressions have a serious purpose. Next to a beaming face with wide eyes to represent excited, there's the furrowed brow and gritted teeth symbolising frustrated; beside the lowered eyelids of a shy person, there's the arched eyebrow of someone confused.

This is the Expressions Wall, a fixture on one side of Sasha Tuxford's narrow room. It's often in front of this wall that children who struggle to articulate their moods start to find their voice. "It can be quite difficult for them to put it into words, so I made this wall so they can recognise how they're feeling," he says.

Sasha is a learning mentor at St Mary's Church of England Primary in the south London borough of Lewisham. He is one of about 14,000 learning mentors working in England's schools.

The role was created nine years ago, as part of the Excellence in Cities initiative to tackle underachievement in deprived areas. Although schools are free to develop the post in their own fashion, the primary purpose is to tackle barriers to learning.

At St Mary's those barriers are formidable. Lewisham is the 39th most deprived local authority in England, and the school has a high proportion of pupils whose first language is not English, according to its latest Ofsted report. Crime in the borough is high: violent offences are running at about twice the national average; robbery eight times. Matt Britt, the school's sixth headteacher in nine years, says about a dozen of his pupils have lost a member of their immediate family to knife or gun crime.

For Sasha, who has been at St Mary's for two and a half years, his principle task is often to try to tackle the consequences of these issues. "Every child is going to face something that is going to knock them during their time at school; we have pupils where something is going to knock them every day," he says. "A lot are damaged, whether it's through experiences they've had, or through the lives they're living. I see my role as working with those children."

This work ranges from talking to children about how they feel - this is where the Expressions Wall can come in handy - sometimes as a one-off, sometimes several times a week, to referring them on to other professionals, from behavioural support to Young Carers. Children who join the school during the year automatically get six sessions with Sasha to help them settle in.

Sasha emphasises that he is not there just to deal with behavioural problems - although he does that as well - but with children who are not engaging for whatever reason. One Year 6 boy recently revealed he wanted to live with his aunt because his mother was drinking to such an extent that he was scared of her. Sometimes just talking to a child can make a difference.

"Children are often not listened to one-to-one, and to sit down with them for 30 minutes a week can be powerful," says Elinor Crockford, co- ordinator for Lewisham's 100 learning mentors.

Matt is in no doubt that the school benefits from Sasha's work, certainly enough to justify the Pounds 12,000 a year coming from the school's budget, with the remainder from the Department for Children, Schools and Families- administered Standards Fund.

Although it's impossible to separate the effect of different aspects of the school's approach, Matt notes that the number of fixed-term exclusions has dropped from 27 in his first term four years ago to eight in the whole of last year. Sasha's contribution was also singled out as "highly effective" in this year's Ofsted inspection at the school, with St Mary's rated outstanding for the care, guidance and support offered.

"We need children to feel that the school is working for them," says Matt. "We still have lots of challenges, but there's a real belief in the community that the school can do something about them."

At John Randall Primary in Telford in the West Midlands, the learning mentor role has evolved into a preventative, rather than a reactive, one, according to Helen Middleton, headteacher. "She is not there to deal with fights in the playground, that is my job," Helen says. Rae Pope, the school's learning mentor, works with children both one-to-one and in groups. Virtually all the pupils she sees are referred by teachers, for reasons including bereavement, family break-up, arriving midway through a term, or not getting on with their peers.

"I'm a big believer that if you haven't got the social and emotional side right, they're not going to learn," says Rae, a teaching assistant for nine years before she decided to move into the learning mentor side. She works with parents and does home visits to make sure the whole family is on side. She runs a breakfast club, initially for children with poor attendance, but now open to the rest of the school, and is careful not to neglect children who are getting on with their work: recent trips include taking Year 6 pupils who'd never thought of higher education to Wolverhampton University, and 12 pupils who had never seen the sea to the coast.

For Helen, Rae's work has been part of pupils feeling more positive about the school and having a better relationship with their parents. "It has had a huge impact on the school," she says.

But it isn't only primary schools that have been feeling the benefit. Maureen Davis is one of the longest-serving learning mentors, now in her eighth year at St John Wall Catholic School, a secondary in Handsworth, Birmingham. When Maureen started, few people knew what the role involved; now it is deeply embedded in the school's culture.

Most of her referrals come from heads of year. Among them are young carers, children who have suffered family bereavement, family break-up, self-esteem issues, even problems with anger management. She has noticed a rise in recent years in the call for mediation between groups of friends who are falling out, and there's been an increasing emphasis on helping ease the transition from primary to secondary school.

Once a child is referred, she will usually arrange a meeting with the parent or carer to agree on a course of action, which could include one- to-one work over several weeks, group work, or referral to a specialist agency. "Really it's for children who need a bit of support; if they need a lot of support, then I'll usually refer them to someone else," she says.

Back at St Mary's, there's a realistic expectation of what one person can achieve. Sasha says: "It is about them realising that it doesn't have to be a huge step; it just has to be a little step in the right direction."

What does a learning mentor do?

The role of learning mentors has changed substantially since their introduction into schools nine years ago, according to Paul Harper, national development manager at the Children's Workforce Development Council.

From an initial target of disadvantaged areas, they are now very much part of the mainstream. "They are accepted as part of a school's armoury in tackling barriers to learning," he says.

Although there is no requirement for schools to employ a learning mentor, he says many heads appreciate the difference they can make. "They're valuable in helping children improve outcomes, although they're not the only part of the workforce that does."

Learning mentors have the advantage over teachers of time to make phone calls and contacts during the school day, and can appear less daunting to parents whose memories of their own schooldays are less than fond.

"It's all about looking at what is preventing teachers from having the maximum impact in the classroom," Paul adds.

"All over the country there are children in challenging circumstances, and that needs to be addressed."

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