Get in line with mentoring

19th October 2007 at 01:00
Work beyond the school gate can give some pupils the role model they need, reports Hannah Frankel.Kyle is ready and raring to go in a new tracksuit - excited to be going horse riding for the first time in his life. Although the Hackney Marshes in east London is only a short walk from his home, the seven-year-old rarely ventures there. He cannot understand why people are eating on the grass. When he finds out that he too will be having a picnic, his delight is obvious. He carefully takes off his trainers, places them beside the blanket and lies down to look at the sky.

It may seem a simple and unnoteworthy experience, but for Kyle this means a lot. His mum, a single working mother of four, does not always have the time and Kyle does not always have the patience. It may be hard to believe but this lively, inquisitive boy - galloping down the corridor on an imaginary horse in anticipation of the real thing - can struggle to contain his anger at school. He finds it difficult to make friends and exhibited at least 16 behavioural problems on the widely-used Goodman Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire last year.

Not that any of this is obvious to Darren Brady, 42, who commutes across London each weekend to mentor Kyle. Chance UK, an award-winning charity, put the pair together following an intensive training and vetting programme. Since 1995, it has run year-long mentoring programmes for more than 600 five to 11-year-olds at risk of turning to crime. A third of the youngsters have been excluded from school and a quarter come from households involved in crime. By the end of the year, nearly half have shed their challenging ways.

Kyle is already displaying encouraging signs. He is calmer at home and more focused at school. Darren has also noticed an increase in self-confidence. He is much more able to ask strangers questions and is better at articulating clearly. Most importantly perhaps, there have been no recent reports of aggression.

Barrie O'Shea, head of Duncombe Primary in Islington, north London, has seen the transformation many times. He has referred about 20 of his pupils to the charity, including one at the moment. "Chance UK has been a godsend," he says. "It gives the children and their families a much-needed period of stability."

The mentors act as positive role models in an environment that can be tough and unforgiving: in the past 16 years, there have been 19 murders within the vicinity of Duncombe. The most recent was in June, when a teenage boy was stabbed not 100 metres from the school. Duncombe itself, however, is an oasis of calm.

"Excluded pupils from nearby secondaries can come in off the street and work here as teaching assistants," says Barrie. "They stay for as long as they need - usually the duration of the exclusion, but one girl stayed for three years." It is also the first port of call for parents who need help with immigration, housing, the police, social services or even a violent partner. Men have been known to come to the school gates waving a knife or baseball bat in the air, while Barrie and his team look after the mother inside.

"When children see adults behave like that, it's important they get an alternative perspective," Barrie says. "All the adults here, including our 50 or so volunteers, are committed role models, but it has to go beyond the school gates as well. Chance UK does that. After the year, the pupils respond to situations differently. If they feel they may be a danger to others, they'll come to a member of my team and say 'I'm angry', until they slowly calm down again. They've learnt coping strategies just through having that extra parent figure who cares for them. It's a very powerful thing."

The cost of doing nothing far outweighs Chance UK's expenses. New Philanthropy Capital, the charity that advises donors on how to give more effectively, has calculated that the average cost to society of each young person excluded from school is more than pound;64,000. The average cost of a persistent truant is nearly pound;45,000. Chance UK, on the other hand, costs pound;4,900 per child per year, and that includes a high staff-to-mentor ratio and plenty of parental support as well.

The Department for Children, School and Families certainly thinks that mentoring programmes are worthwhile. It has invested pound;1.5 million over two years in a peer-mentoring pilot that aims to reach more than 7,000 young people. The evaluation, due out next year, should shed some light on how peer-mentoring affects attendance, attainment and bullying.

The benefits of Chance UK, however, have already been proven. After a year, there is a marked reduction in emotional and behavioural problems and antisocial tendencies. It is sometimes hard to transfer the lessons learnt with a mentor, who is exclusively focused on one child, to a classroom where 30 pupils are all vying for the teacher's attention. However, Gracia McGrath, Chance UK's chief executive, says they've factored that into the scheme.

"It is essential that we liaise with schools very closely throughout the year to see if the young person is improving," she says. "If they aren't, we expand the one-to-one sessions to include five to 10 other mentors and their children. That way they learn to work with others while remaining in a highly personal and supportive environment." It is a trick that Darren readily adopted with Kyle. The boy is good with adults but can find it hard to interact with his peers, so the pair went on a popular workshop at the National Portrait Gallery in London. "He worked well with the other children," says Darren. "He was particularly good with looking after the younger ones, although he was quite competitive with his own age group."

On a limited budget of pound;30 a month, excursions like this - or the horse riding - may be scarce, but it is the simple things Kyle cherishes. Watching dragonflies on the canal, looking at the fountains in Trafalgar Square or getting a bus over the Thames, were all a first for him. "We always have a blast together," Darren says. "I think there's a view with volunteering that it's somehow very altruistic and worthy, but it's a two-way process. I get a great deal out of it."

On the Underground, Kyle insists on stopping and listening to a busker. "I would barely have noticed him, but Kyle hadn't heard live music before and was intrigued," says Darren. "We ended up dancing there and then. It was wonderful - like being a child again. I'd never have had that experience without Kyle."

BENEFITS OF MENTORING

- Better attitude to education and attainment.

- Reduced anger and violence.

- Improved confidence and self-esteem.

- Reduced drug or alcohol use.

- Improved relationship with families.

- Improved mental health.

Source: New Philanthropy Capital

SCHOOLS THAT ARE TAKING A CHANCE

To date, only schools in the London boroughs of Hackney and Islington have been able to refer pupils to Chance UK, but since it joined forces earlier this year with NCH, one of the UK's leading children's charities, it is spreading its wings to Liverpool, Derry, Inverness and Crawley. It is also in talks with three other London boroughs. For more information, visit www.chanceuk.org.

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