Andrew Mourant on how retired people in Taunton are helping to motivate 14 and 15-year-olds
The wisdom that comes with age is being put to good use at The Castle School, Taunton, where six retired people have begun acting as mentors to pupils in Year 10.
The head, Kevin Freedman, now plans to expand the scheme next year. "It's a new venture and we're very pleased with the way it has gone," he said.
"Some retired people still have excellent contacts and have written letters to employers applying for work experience on behalf of the students."
The idea of drafting in retired people grew out of the Compact scheme where business community volunteers monitor and encourage underachieving pupils. This has resulted in stronger links between the school and many employers.
Mr Freedman said: "It's been a great success - we have 60 doing it - but there's a limit to the number of business people you can call on. We considered what other groups might come along and then hit on the idea of the retired."
There's little evidence of the generation gap - students seem undeterred by the age difference. Pat Watkins, a retired teacher, was among the first to join up, and each fortnight spends an hour with Year 10 pupil Leanne Baines.
Leanne lives with her mother, stepfather and three sisters and had the upheaval of moving from Leeds 18 months ago. Initially she had difficulty with some of her work but the mentor scheme has helped. "If I think there are things I can't do, Pat shows me that I can," she said.
Mrs Watkins, a grandmother, has never lost touch with children. "I understand them very well," she said. "Leanne tells me things I don't discuss with anyone else. We do what she feels she needs."
Jo Harland, soon to retire from a career in financial services, became a mentor through knowing teachers at the school. She has linked up with 15-year-old Kristine Seaton who is pleased to have "someone to impress with my work".
Moreover, Mrs Harland's background has helped address Kristine's weakness in arithmetic and calculation. "We're trying to find a novel way to do tables," she said. "I've been stressing the importance of a good education and the need for qualifications."
A common interest in basketball helped forge a friendship between 14-year-old John Roberts and Roy Parsloe, 64, a former PE lecturer. "The mentoring system was new and I wanted to find out what it would be like. I get on well with Roy and he has encouraged my interest," John said.
For Mr Parsloe, the relationship has opened new horizons. "John is interested in the fire brigade. We've visited the local station and I've learned what it takes to become a fireman. If you're retired, you have more time to spend with the youngsters. There's a possibility that if you're old you're out of touch but it doesn't necessarily follow.
"One thing I've got across to John is that while it's easy to load up with knowledge, you may not necessarily understand things. He's now learning to see the point of what he's doing."
Mr Freedman says there has been a universal improvement in the work of children who have mentors. By autumn, he hopes to have recruited 120; and the scheme has been nominated for an award by Age Concern because of its value in linking generations.
"It is very much the sort of thing we're looking for. Retired people can offer youngsters life experience, reward and support where it is needed," said Helen Onley, Age Concern's club liaison officer.