The Conversation: Assertive mentoring

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Geoff Barton , head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, talks to Eamonn Farrar , chief executive of Hurworth School, near Darlington, about how his school is tackling "laddishness"

GB: What's distinctive about your approach to raising achievement?

EF: In 1998 we abandoned our existing mentoring systems. They were too cosy and weren't personalising learning or dealing with issues such as "laddishness". Instead, we devised a system called assertive mentoring, which ensures that challenging end-of-key-stage targets are set for all pupils by the senior management team. Associated tracking systems predict future outcomes for pupils based on current effort and quality of work.

"Assertive" mentors feed back predicted grades to their mentees; challenge under-achievement and agree interventions. These agreements are then communicated to their classroom teachers. Checks are made to ensure that interventions have been understood and implemented to the desired level.

GB: Who are the mentors and how many are there?

EF: The mentors are teachers. The most challenging pupils are mentored by senior staff. We use five of our seven-strong SMT. They have clout and can make time. We also have some excellent "assertive" teachers (currently seven) who volunteer to mentor a small number of kids. They have a proven track record of devising and implementing effective interventions to deal with underachievement in their own classroom.

GB: How have the pupils being mentored reacted to the process? It sounds pretty tough.

EF: It is tough but the kids love it. Under our old system, mentors lacked hard evidence to challenge pupils. Pupils picked up on this and often bluffed their way through meetings making vague commitments to work harder in future. Very few real measurable outcomes emerged. So nothing really changed. The kids knew that this didn't really benefit them. They wanted something more rigorous.

Assertive mentoring provides no way out. Other pupils see this so don't have a go at a pupil who suddenly decides to work hard.

GB: What kind of "no way out" targets does the school set?

EF: It's not the targets that offer pupils no way out; it's the unique style of mentoring. Mentors identify underachievement and solutions to it with pupils. Interventions are agreed, but these are not optional. Pupils know they will be checked on immediately and regularly. If they aren't carrying out their part of the agreement, they will be challenged strongly.

Through our strict checking systems, we offer pupils a face-saving device to enable them to work without undermining their own sense of being a lad or ladette.

GB: I'm still struggling to see what the unique style means in practice. If, for example, I'm an underachieving Year 11 boy with borderline CD grades and a tendency to get laddish when my friends are around, what kind of no-nonsense targets could I expect to get from my mentor and how would I then be monitored?

EF: OK. Take Baz. Predicted to get DEs, but should be Cs or better. He's a key leader, but Jack the Lad in front of his mates. As his mentor, I teased out of him that he wanted to start working hard. But he refused to be seen to be doing so of his own accord. So we agreed an act that he and I would play out in a lesson later that day. As a key authority figure, I was seen making clear demands of Baz in front of his mates. They felt that he now had no choice but to work. They backed off. He later thanked me. Privately.

GB: I like the emphasis on personalising the approach. It feels to me as if the essential ingredients are: a determination to intervene to challenge patterns of behaviour, getting the right staff involved and using data to challenge any excuses about underachievement. Thanks for an enlightened conversation.

* For talks on Hurworth's assertive mentoring,

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