Fight for specialist mentors

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Why do so many schools ask their hard-pressed managers to mentor pupils in Year 11?

Why do so many schools ask their hard-pressed managers to mentor pupils in Year 11?

I sat through a training session in another school recently where a headteacher allotted each of the middle leadership team a handful of fragile pupils to mentor. But experience has taught me that this kind of generalised "mentoring" is difficult to do effectively, due to a lack of precision.

Such temporary mentors don't have the time to make a real difference to their charges. But, more crucially, in the subjects they do not teach, they don't have the expertise to help pupils with specific curriculum knowledge. They can't know the fine detail of the GCSE coursework or the exam syllabus for each of the major subjects. Put anecdotally, it's hardly surprising that your head of science doesn't know how to answer a question on the Buddhist perspective on Crime and Punishment. And why should your head of technology be equipped to interrogate an evidence-based question on the Crusaders?

Giving mentees the guidance they need to do better requires the depth of knowledge that only a subject specialist can claim. So surely the best people to mentor individually are the subject specialists. Granting them the time and space to be with their pupils more often outside lesson time may be the best strategy.

There is no substitute for specialist knowledge. General mentoring has only limited benefits. Sometimes the personal attention, "tea and sympathy" factor, or the positive "you can do it" pep talk can get pupils moving. But that can wear thin if you don't really know the fine subject detail, and what pupils need to do to improve their performance.

Paul Blum, Senior manager in a London school.

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