Guiding arms of the law

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Police officers are taking on a new beat: mentoring teenagers who have their sights on management, writes Douglas Blane

It's easy to see that the fourth year and fifth year pupils chatting in tight, little groups among the satinwood panels of Glasgow City Chambers find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. So, too, do the experienced police officers standing quietly on their own, sipping coffee.

Projecting confidence is a skill that police recruits acquire early. By the time they have gained as much experience as their senior managers - all of whom have volunteered to act as mentors to the teenagers - it comes naturally to them. However, it can be deceptive. "Some of us," confesses Chief Inspector David BaMaung, who initiated the project, "are quite apprehensive."

This is the first time the 15 volunteers have met the teenagers, who want to emulate their successful careers in management. After the introductory speeches many, on both sides, seem a little unsure what to do next.

Perhaps the location, with all its heavy Victorian grandeur, is a mistake. But for the launch of an initiative that involves the Institute of Management, Glasgow Education Business Partnership, Glasgow Mentoring Network, Strathclyde Police Force and private companies, as well as St Thomas Aquinas Secondary and the High School of Glasgow, a pub would hardly have been appropriate.

Thankfully the speakers, including Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry, and Hanzala Malik, senior vice-convener of education in Glasgow, inject a relaxing note of good humour into the proceedings.

Talking about the qualities of a good mentor, Mr Pignatelli draws an analogy with a grandmother and reads a pertinent extract from a young boy's essay:

"Grandmothers don't have to do anything but be there. They are old so they shouldn't play hard or run. Usually they are fat, though not too fat to tie children's shoelaces. They wear glasses and funny underwear. Everyone should have one, especially if they don't have television, because grandmothers are the only grown-ups who have time."

He concludes: "There aren't too many folk who find time to help young people. There's a whole lot who criticise them. So it's interesting that these policemen and women aren't criticising but are saying they want to help young people, make them better citizens, give them a better start in life."

The nature of the relationships they will forge with the young people is critical to the success of the initiative. How easy is it going to be for senior managers in general, and police managers in particular, to drop the mantle of authority and decision-making that is so essential to their work and adopt a more supportive, accepting and even passive role? After all, the whole point about a director, a manager or a superintendent is that he or she directs, manages or superintends. A good mentor does none of these.

"It's about sharing your experience, opening the young person's eyes," explains Jacqueline Thomas, co-ordinator of the Glasgow Mentoring Network. "It's not about telling them what to do.

"A mentor is someone who takes a special interest in you, but has no say over your progress at work or academically. They're not there so much to give advice as to act as a sounding board, to create an environment where the young person can test out ideas without looking stupid, and as much as anything to listen."

With a few exceptions, such as company director Dianne Miller, the assembled managers have no mentoring experience. And even though Ms Thomas, who provided them with training, is confident they can adapt to the role, at this first meeting the enthusiastic adults do most of the talking.

However, the teenagers will gain in confidence from their contact with senior people as well as from the workshops on research, interviewing and presentation skills and the seminars organised by Chief Insp BaMaung as chairman of the Institute of Management's Glasgow branch.

The project's progress will be closely monitored and feedback will be sought, he says. An encouraging pointer to its success is the attitude expressed by the police officers and company directors. As Superintendent David Barr puts it: "I expect to learn a lot from these young people."

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