Guardian angels;Mentoring

4th June 1999 at 01:00
The Government's Social Exclusion Unit wants thesystem of mentors helping students and teachers to be extended to tackle underachievement, unemployment and social isolation. Helen Hague reports

Two years ago Jo Kellet was going off the rails. She couldn't control her temper and was unable to work with other pupils. Friends were rejecting her because she was too difficult and could not co-operate. What little school work she did was scrappy and usually late. "I just couldn't be bothered," she says.

Then she joined the Compact Plus Club run by Gail Jacavou at Jo's school, Haybridge High in Hagley, Worcestershire. It provides help and support for disaffected young people, those who want to return to learning and prepare for further study or the world of work. Most important of all, it provides a mentor, a guardian angel figure with whom each young person can discuss their difficulties, their worries and fears for the future.

In Jo's case, she was assigned Gail with whom she struck up a sound relationship. Gail provided her with a shoulder to cry on, a role model of how to conduct oneself properly as a young adult, someone who could advise her about the future.

Today, she is a bright 16-year-old sitting nine GCSEs and looking forward to earning her place at Kidderminster College to study information technology. And she is unequivocal about the beneficial effects of mentoring. "If it hadn't been for Gail - and I'd carried on behaving like I was - I'd probably have been expelled by now."

Gail Jacavou comes into school once a week, teaching a group of 10 pupils a range of topics. Sessions range from revision techniques and assertiveness to interpreting body language and how to fill in job applications. No-one is dragooned into joining and there is extra time set aside for individual mentoring.

Which is where Jo met Gail one to one. "We just clicked," says Jo. "She's taught me things and is a very good listener." The relationship has made a radical difference to the way Jo approaches work and life. "I've learned to tolerate people and I can work with them even if I don't like them. My work was very scrappy before, I just couldn't be bothered.

"Now I always do homework on time and course work to deadlines. Before, I couldn't control my anger and I lost a lot of friends over it. I'm a lot more pleasant now."

She flashes a broad grin across to Gail. "I can fly solo now."

Michael Bichard practices what he preaches. For the past three years the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment has been acting as a mentor to junior staff at Sanctuary Buildings, workplace for the 1,500 civil servants who guide the country's education system.

Mentoring has been established in the department for many years and is well established in its higher reaches. Support by top managers sends a strong signal down the line to the entire department that staff development matters.

Michael Bichard believes that mentoring has a role alongside the formal training that all good organisations should offer to their staff. "For me it is about being able to use my experiences to help someone else, to act as a sounding board, and to provide impartial advice and guidance. But it's not a one-way street. The mentoring relationship offers a chance to see things from another's perspective and it makes me think about my own management style."

The department has launched its own scheme designed to create a more motivated, flexible workforce with a greater ability to respond to change. Employees can log on to a mentoring website to help them decide whether the scheme is for them. Every volunteer will be trained and given continuing support.

The scheme is another way of helping junior staff in their career development. It gives them a chance to acquire skills and insights not usually available through the job, to increase their business awareness and to explore personal issues with a more experienced colleague.

And the mentors benefit too. As well as gaining satisfaction from helping others, they are likely, so the thinking goes, to become more strategically informed about the business, challenged to see things from another point of view and get a chance to hone skills which can be transferred to other situations.

an electronic company in Ashington, Lite-On, is delighted that four years ago Dave Barrass got the job as head of design technology at Bedlingtonshire Community High School. The department he took over was languishing. Dave Barrass thought the school would benefit if he got experience in local industry.

Northumberland Training and Enterprise Council fixed him up with a placement at Lite-On, two miles down the road. The firm had been rescued from receivers three years previously, by its Taiwanese owners, but was still in the doldrums.

The placement, and what followed, have transformed both school and factory and show how personal chemistry can be a spring-board for far-reaching changes. It also provides an object lesson on how to build links between a school and local industry. Barrass and Brian Smith, Lite-On's new chief executive, hit it off immediately and soon realised they could do business.

What began as a way of improving achievement and motivation for design and technology students has grown into a whole-school approach. The link-up has become part of the fabric of school life - and morale has been boosted from the shop floor to the board room.

Encouraged by his headteacher, Barrass seized new freedoms given by the Dearing report to frame a joint GCSEGNVQ course in electronics and manufacture. Soon, groups of pupils were making regular trips to the factory, gaining first-hand experience of production, seeing teamwork in action - having the chance to see how classroom theory translated into industrial practice.

Crucially, pupils were linked with industrial mentors who gave them advice on coursework, face to face or by email. Visits were scheduled into the timetable, Lite-On sponsored a technology competition for pupils and pupils. Motivation and achievement has risen, and all the indications are that Year 11 is set to out-perform its base-line assessments in maths, science and technology.

Brian Smith is now a co-opted governor at Bedlingtonshire, the company co-funds a design and technology teacher at the school who also teaches Modern Apprentices at Lite-on's plant. The school is poised to become a Technology College in September. Lite-On is the leading sponsor, donating equipment, creating a simulated production centre at the school and even helping to frame the bid. Mr Smith and Andy Wright, the headteacher, now meet regularly.

The company has reaped many benefits from the links forged with the school, says Mr Smith. "We wanted to address skills shortages, build for the future and make people realise that there was a good career to be had at our company which is committed to life-long learning."

Morale was not high but the school link played a key role in turning things around. "The fact that we were getting youngsters involved sent a clear message that we were planning for the long-term. It engaged people quickly - and they were keen to share their experience with younger people."

Back in 1991, there were 118 on the payroll - now there are 210. Shop-floor staff have gained confidence and skills in passing on their knowledge to pupils. They in turn are taking NVQs in engineering production alongside GNVQs, building a potential workforce for the future.

Our involvement with the school is not a bolt-on - it has become an integral part of our business strategy," says Mr Smith.

Sylvia Watkinson is a former team leader on the shop floor who has mentioned Bedlingtonshire pupils while studying on the job for NVQs in shopfloor management. The experience has unleashed her own latent talents, and since January she has moved up to be a human resources development co-ordinator.

"Like a lot of people who work here, I feel I have learned a lot from mentoring," she says. "We know we are facing skills shortages and the company is both helping itself and putting something back into the community. It feels good to be part of something that is making such a difference, both now and in the long-term."

The North London Mentoring Programme, based at City and Islington College in inner London, has always been ahead of the game. It pioneered its mentoring for young black and Asian students more than a decade ago. Since then, nearly 1,000 young people have benefited and half of these have gone on to higher education, some completing masters' degrees.

Howard Jeffrey, director at the programme, is passionate about the need for such a scheme. "In Britain, many young people from ethnic minorities do not see, let alone meet, high-achievers from their own community. The programme rectifies this situation by providing participating students with a mentor from their community."

The programme is based on a scheme in the US and tailored to meet the requirements of young African, Caribbean and Asian people in Islington. It is run by the North London Mentor Trust, a registered charity which has attracted sponsorship from blue-chip companies including BP, Unilever, Sainsbury's, the Metropolitan Police and NatWest Bank. From its outset some of Britain's most prominent black citizens have given support, including broadcasters Moira Stuart and Trevor Phillips and Herman Ouseley of the Commission for Racial Equality.

The scheme was targeted at 16- to 18-year-old African, Asian and Caribbean students of science, maths, information technology and engineering, who have under-achieved in the past.

Given the ethos which informs mentoring, it is hardly surprising some former mentees have a habit of coming back to college - to act as mentors themselves this time round.

If the Government gets its way, we are about to enter The Age of the Mentor. It is now an important concept in a raft of New Labour strategies - from raising standards in schools to helping to steer vulnerable young people away from crime. The Government wants to mobilise a growing army of volunteers who can offer individual support and friendship to those who need it.

Last month, Paul Boateng, the Home Office Minister, told the National Networking Conference that the millennium offered a unique opportunity "to seek a step change in community involvement and to build an inclusive, healthy, tolerant society". Mentoring and other forms of voluntary action will play an important role in igniting a new spirit of community involvement, he said.

Education and employment is one of the areas where mentoring is most firmly rooted. Education business partnerships - local authority bodies which promote links between industry and education - have laid down solid groundwork.

The Minister came to the network conference bearing gifts. He announced Government support for imaginative projects to develop mentoring in schools would be doubled to pound;340,000 in the coming year. Those involving students from ethnic minorities will be given priority.

Home Office ministers are convinced boys who risk falling into a life of crime can be steered away be effective mentors. Like the Government's Social Exclusion Unit, mentoring cuts across departmental boundaries. It is part of the attempt to deliver so called joined-up government.

Mr Boateng told last month's conference it could be "extremely positive in the battle against youth crime, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and social exclusion in all its forms". Setting aside a few hours a week to give a young person one-to-one support can develop a boy's self worth, steering him away from crime.

The Home Office is funding and evaluating two projects designed to offer mentoring as an early intervention for young people at risk of offending. The Dalston Youth Project offers one-to-one mentoring to young people between the ages of 11 and 15, backed up with supplementary education after school. Chance Islington is a ground-breaking programme introducing mentoring to children between 7 and 11 who are showing behavioural problems at home and school. Both could deliver templates on how individual support can nip anti-social behaviour in the bud.

The Social Exclusion Unit is recommending mentoring programmes to keep up to 50,000 teenage mothers a year in education and training. The unit's report on truancy recognised the difference good schemes could make to children at risk. Expect more. Organisations involved in mentoring have been feeding into the unit's work on teenage pregnancies and on 16-18 year-olds not in education, work or training.

Schools and businesses interested in mentoring are offered advice and support by the National Mentoring Network, based in Manchester. The network acts as a forum for exchanging information and good practice. Government subsidies to the network doubled to more than pound;340,000 over the past year to meet the growing demand for cash to support projects aimed at raising achievement, reducing unemployment and promoting social inclusion. The network can be contacted on 0161 787 8600

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