The listeners

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
The Excellence in Cities scheme is creating a new kind of professional who has the time to work one-to-one with underachievers. Expect to meet a learning mentor in your school soon, reports Wendy Wallace.

In a small office off the library, Daniel, a Year 10 pupil at Firth Park community college in Sheffield, is talking to learning mentor Emily Pickles. "Limited output," she quotes from the report in front of her. "What do you think she means by that?" Daniel isn't sure. "Do you know what erratic means?" No, he doesn't. "D'you reckon you've become more mature?" "Sort of, Miss."

Daniel has a number two haircut with a fresh scar visible through the bristles. He is academically capable, but his attendance is poor and he has been doing less well than his teachers think he could. He has trouble sleeping, he tells Ms Pickles, and when he gets up early to go to school he feels tired during the day. She suggests hot chocolate and a bath before bed. "Have you ever tried counting backwards from 100?" "No, Miss."

"Have you tried reading? I usually fall asleep with a book on my face." Daniel smiles.

Listening to 23-year-old Ms Pickles's conversation with 15-year-old Daniel is like hearing the sound of one hand clapping. She pumps out animated encouragement while he keeps his eyes fixed on his lap. But they're both beaming by the time he leaves. And Daniel has been doing much better since he was referred to Ms Pickles last September. "You've not had any incidents slips, which is brilliant," she says, as he gets up to go. "You've done well at not being distracted."

Firth Park, an 11-16 comprehensive in David Blunkett's constituency, has three learning mentors, paid for by Excellence in Cities - one of the government initiatives designed to drive up standards, but with an emphasis on supporting learning. When headteacher Mo Laycock came to the school almost six years ago, it had serious weaknesses and a falling roll. Now it is full for next September - with 1,300 pupils - has undergone a pound;7.5 million refurbishment and expansion and has "won the community back", says the head. "We know teaching and learning are sound in the school," says Ms Laycock. "But we do have children who are needy, who have challenging home lives and who can be quite explosive. There is another level of support we thought we needed in school - and that is learning mentors."

Teachers who aren't already working alongside learning mentors are likely to be soon. Around 1,500 are in post and the Government has announced an annual budget of pound;100 million by 2004 to more than double their numbers in schools covered by the Excellence in Cities programme. Primary schools will be employing 900 mentors by the end of the year; half of all secondaries are expected to have mentors in three years. But who are these new education professionals, and what exactly are they meant to be doing?

The answer is being worked out school by school, as people from varied backgrounds, earning vastly different salaries, establish a space for themselves between students and staff. Beyond a brief job description, the Government has issued no guidance.

In Sheffield, mentors have been recruited from youth service backgrounds, from social work, the prison service, education welfare, even education. "We decided this was a new profession and we wanted a variety of backgrounds," says Lynne Nickson, Sheffield's learning mentor co-ordinator. Recent advertisements for mentors to work in primary schools have attracted between 80 and 90 applicants per post.

What do learning mentors have to offer that teachers don't? "Time," says Ms Pickles. "Uninterrupted time," says Liz Cooper, assistant head of Year 10 at Firth Park. "As year tutors we've got 230 kids, whereas the mentors can work with individual pupils, look at strengths and weaknesses and work out strategies. Students are asking for a learning mentor because they've seen it working with other kids and they think 'maybe it can do something for me'."

Ms Pickles, who has a degree in politics and philosophy from Sheffield University, casts herself as big sister to troubled pupils. Previously employed in the city's housing department, she had been a volunteer mentor with post-16 students and worked in a summer school with gifted and talented children. "It wasn't long ago that I was a Year 10 or Year 11 myself," she says. "So when I say to them 'I understand what you're going through', I mean it."

The job appeals to her desire to help young people and her interest in working in education; plans to do a PGCE have been put on the back burner. She sees 15 Year 10s (including Daniel) and three Year 11s on a one-to-one basis each week, and with fellow mentors runs attendance groups for Year 10 and 11 students (see box).

In Sheffield, mentors have been allocated according to perceived need. Inner-city schools such as Firth Park each have three; "middle of the road" schools have two and "leafy suburbs" schools one. Almost 60 learning mentors are in secondary schools across the city with Excellence in Cities funding. Proof of their positive impact is that some schools, including Firth Park, are now dipping into other funds to recruit more. A primary pilot has just started.

Learning mentors are charged with raising attendance and achievement in secondary schools and reducing exclusion and teenage pregnancy rates. But the job, according to Ms Nickson, varies from school to school. "The role is as wide as you make it," says the former residential social worker. "I'm quite evangelical about it. You're free to look at children and their families in a holistic way, and think about what actually are the barriers to attainment. Is it that nobody in the household gets up in the morning? Does the child have a mental health problem?" Mentors need to draw on a range of services to meet students' needs. Whether it's bereavement counselling, help with domestic violence or sexual health, bringing in young carers' clubs or social services to help a pupil get to school in a fit state to learn - they'll try to arrange it. Daniel at Firth Park, for instance, has benefited from a place at Windsor Junior Fellowship, a national organisation aiming to give a helping hand to potentially high-achieving black and Asian students in Years 10 and 11. There, several times each term, he gets a mix of personal development and outward bound experiences - and a new set of peers. Individual mentoring usually lasts one term, but it can be longer or shorter as necessary.

At Firth Park, mentors are targeted primarily at able but under-achieving students. The head defends this robustly, pointing out that less than 3 per cent of adults locally have experience of further education. And while 48 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals and half have special needs, the head says:"Our pupils are lovely, and once you build a good relationship they'll walk on hot coals for you. But inspiring kids is difficult in schools like this."

Although Sheffield mentors speak with great enthusiasm about their new jobs, uncertainty over their role can cause friction. Teachers have to understand that learning mentors are not there to rush into classroom crises, or be part of discipline procedures. "It's a tricky role," admits Julia Baker, 28, senior learning mentor at Handsworth Grange school in Sheffield. "You have to be tactful, and subtle. You can't discipline students one day and ask them to pour out their heart the next."

Schools have to prepare staff in advance, convincing sceptics that the programme is not a "treats for truants" scheme. School culture makes or breaks mentors. And with a five-day national training programme the only mandatory qualification for learning mentors, some struggle to establish themselves.

Ms Baker, who had four years of managing a mentoring project in the voluntary sector, is well placed to explain the role to teachers. "Workers without my kind of experience have found it a bit more difficult," she concedes. Sheffield has topped up training for its mentors with further in-service training.

Money is another sore point. Salaries vary, from around pound;14,000 to pound;20,000. Ms Pickles is earning more than pound;19,000 a year, much more than a newly qualified teacher.

Teething troubles apart, teachers, mentors and children in Sheffield all express enthusiasm for the new development. "Most learning mentors have been thinking for years that this is what should be happening," says Marlene Porritt, senior learning mentor at Firth Park and a former education social worker. "The system has let some kids down, so it's about looking for alternatives for them."

On the basis of numbers of recorded serious incidents and exclusions, says Bill Lynn, head of Year 10 at Firth Park, mentors have brought about "a distinct improvement". He says: "If you get a good one, you've got a very important jigsaw piece that has been missing going in to school. Emily has been working with a dozen or so students who would have been taking up an incredible amount of time for staff. Kids see her as someone they can talk to - they trust her. She's been able to address issues that we don't have the time for. She's on a par with the teaching staff in terms of the respect due to her, and the influence she's been able to bring to bear on individual children."

"I can't normally do my homework because my brother comes in the room and starts ripping up my work," says 12-year-old Jasmine, a member of the homework club run by the Firth Park mentors. "I get more help here and I like the mentors. They've got a friendly attitude."


In the Year 10 attendance group, aimed at students with an attendance rate of 75 per cent, six of the 10 students have turned up. They're talking over their plans for the future, with mentors Marlene Porritt and Emily Pickles. Last week, James wanted to be a drug dealer. This week he's in more mellow mood, and would like to design computer games. "What sort of games?" "Violence games. Criminal things."

"What appeals about those?" Ms Porritt asks calmly.

"Blood and guts."

On a piece of sugar paper, 14-year-old Carly has made a collage of her hopes and dreams - to be famous, get a big house, live abroad, get a dog, get married, be a layer. ("I think I spelled it wrong.") She has a strong, handsome face, and fiercely bitten nails, and smells of fresh cigarette smoke. "I have odd days off," she admits. "The mentors get you to come to school, and talk to you about what you're going to do after school."

At the other end of the room, a boy is telling Ms Pickles that he wants to be a boss at Lamborghini. Or he might want to make prosthetic fingers, as one of his relatives does. Soon James is telling Ms Porritt that he might need a GCSE in graphics to fulfil his ambition of working for Sony. "We go from what they would like and work backwards," says Ms Porritt. "They can start to believe that what they do at school is for the teacher, not for themselves. So this is about thinking about what they want."

James begins copying down website addresses for more information on FE colleges. At Ms Porritt's prompting, Carly is reading a leaflet about working holidays and temp jobs abroad. "I would miss my mum and dad so much," says Ms Pickles. "Wouldn't you?" Carly looks at her blankly.

All students' names have been changed

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