Boys in east London are reaping the rewards of a scheme that gives them the support they need to reach their full potential. Wendy Wallace reports
In a week when teachers and pupils alike nervously anticipate the arrival of GCSE results, some schools are under more pressure than others. But at Bow school, a 640-pupil boys' comprehensive in the East End of London, an academic mentoring programme for Year 11 has helped beef up staff and students' confidence about the future.
Bow school stands on a traffic-ridden thoroughfare leading east out of the capital. The problem with boys is writ large here; many of the young men grow up deeply disadvantaged, coping with every kind of trauma, and in family cultures that place little value on educational achievement. The pupil population at Bow is racially and culturally mixed, with 40 per cent Asian students, 40 per cent white, 10 per cent Afro-Caribbean and 10 per cent "other"; the East End continues to be a place of transition for many, where the melting pot concept has been replaced by a struggle for harmony.
Headteacher Beverley Dobson, in post for just 11 months, says: "Bow is a school that is developing a culture where learning is regarded as important." If the words sound carefully chosen, they are. Ms Dobson knows she and the institution have a mountain to climb, getting out of special measures and hauling exam results up from last summer's demoralising tally of just 9 per cent five A*-Cs. With Ofsted due in at the beginning of next term, every small gain is cherished and Bow's bruised reputation is carefully protected. But the school is proud of its academic mentoring scheme, which staff believe may help to push up results this summer.
Organised by head of Year 11 Michael Barry, academic mentoring is based on an idea imported by the new head from her previous school. Ms Dobson thanks the scheme, in part at least, for a dramatic rise in GCSE success at Tom Hood in Waltham Forest (from 14 per cent to 40 per cent in three years). "I was, and still am, convinced that academic mentoring plays a complementary role to high-quality teaching and is the key to improving results," she says.
Arriving in her new post last September, she handed the concept over to Mr Barry with instructions to make it "Bow-friendly". At Bow, the basic structure of the scheme involves groups of six Year 11 students, each attached to a volunteer teacher mentor. The groups meet weekly after school on Thursdays throughout the academic year, with 30-year-old Mr Barry providing each teacher mentor (including the head, herself one of the volunteers) with a weekly outline of what should be covered in that meeting. "I explained that I'd do all the preparation, but they had to make the relationships," he says.
Weekly meetings are backed up by a study skills weekend in Somerset - at Mill on the Brue - at the start of the Easter holidays. This year's activity-based weekend had a huge impact on these inner-city students. "Waking up to the breathtaking and unspoilt scenery was completely different from the busy city conditions we live in," says Abdi Guliad, 16.
Mentors also meet parents to discuss support for their children's studies, and put on extra catch-up, revision and study sessions throughout the year in response to requests from students.
All 127 students in last year's Year 11 group were offered the chance to participate in the scheme, although the prime targets were the students considered most capable of achieving exam success; of the original 50 who committed to the scheme, at least 15 dropped out. Unlike other forms of mentoring, the programme at Bow school focuses closely on academic achievement - in particular, getting the grades at GCSE. "Academic mentoring has been about directly looking at academic progress, talking about the students' studies, their homework, how they take notes in class, their exam results," says Mr Barry. "But the brilliance has been the bonding, with each other and with the mentors."
Mr Barry started out with the traditional route to boys' hearts, offering pizza at initial meetings as a reward for showing up. He moved on to offering revision guides as well. "I said, 'this is more valuable than pizza'." Parents helped prop up attendance, which was in students' own time. "They were incredibly supportive. They saw it as a means of getting their sons to achieve," says Ms Dobson. But students kept coming because the groups were rewarding.
English teacher Liza deCarvalho (see box) is co-ordinator for the "gifted and talented" pupils, and despite initial doubts about the extra workload, decided she wanted to be part of the project. "I've never looked back," she says. "Often in inner-city schools the more able students are on the sidelines. Giving extra attention to those who want to achieve is great."
She talked to her mentor group about her childhood in the US - "the choices you have to make, how hard it is to revise, the fact that I wasn't a rounded student - I didn't have a social life". (This is difficult to believe of the vivacious Ms D, who was voted "best academic mentor" in a student poll.) In return, Bow boys opened up to her about their own lives out of school, and she heard about the student who looks after his grandmother, the one who has nowhere to revise at home, and their feelings about other teachers. "It was nice for them to feel they were being heard, even if it didn't change much," she says.
Ojenna Mekconenn, 16, (known to his friends as OJ) was one of the most committed mentees. He came to Britain on his own, aged nine, from Ethiopia, and has an air of maturity. He has taken nine GCSEs and hopes to go on to do A-levels in business studies, psychology and accounting at an FE college, then on to university. He appreciated the more equal footing achieved in the mentoring groups. "It wasn't like a teacherstudent programme," he says. "It was like, 'we're all adults here. Let's talk about what's going to happen'." Ojenna says his weekend away in Somerset shortly before the public exams began was a real benefit. "The trip was mainly about teamwork. It affected the atmosphere in class when we came back," he says. "It was calmer. We all had a goal and we knew what it was."
Despite the close focus on exam skills - headings for the first few weeks' sessions include time-management, study skills, planning and where to study - students seem to have gained as much or more from the intangibles. "It made a difference. We were very close with each other, we understood each other and I got to know myself better," says Abdul Muktadir, 16. "I also got to know my teachers better." Abdul took nine GCSEs and hopes to go into television journalism. "At home, I didn't really get that push I needed," he says, even though his parents hired a tutor to give him extra coaching. "This was support all around. Anything I needed, I could ask for. I found revising boring, but my mentor helped me plan my timetable."
Beverley Dobson sees academic mentoring as a fusion. "The relationship - the personal and professional relationship - is key," she says. "But it's the study and skills support that comes with that relationship, and which can be engendered in small groups, that gives students that extra boost."
Michael Barry, who goes on to an assistant headship at St John Rigby Catholic college in the London borough of Bromley next term, is a fan of academic mentoring. He points out that boys, in particular, may struggle with exam techniques, but that extra support can help avert panic and foster confidence. "It's the most enjoyable educational experience I've ever been part of," he says. "There's been a lot more learning for everyone than just academic progress - social skills, friendship-building, willingness of students to take ownership of their learning. In a boys' school in the East End, not feeling afraid to say 'I want to do well' is fantastic."
With the exams behind him, Ojenna Mekconenn is spending the summer holidays working in catering, and coaching younger children in basketball while waiting to start his A-level course. His family back in Ethiopia instilled in him the belief in education, which has survived exile in inner-city Britain, and been upheld by his foster family and Bow school. "You can be called a boffin," he says, "but at the end of the day it's mostly jealousy. If there's such a thing as a cool boffin, then we're cool boffins here."
Anyone interested in academic mentoring can contact Michael Barry by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org