Mentoring from anywhere

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Luke Ridley, age 15, is from the City of Leeds School, an inner city high school which draws pupils from an area ranked by the Department of the Environment as amongst the 10 per cent most deprived in England. Helen Ackroyd is commercial director in one of this country's largest IT recruitment companies; a successful businesswoman, she travels a lot.

World's apart, you'd think. Except they're not. Helen is Luke's mentor, and though they've only met once, since February they have communicated at least twice a week. Their method of communication is email. And it's a method which seems to be working for the benefit of both.

"There was a willingness in the business community to volunteer for traditional mentoring", says Jacqui Tesselment, who was employed by Leeds University and Business in the Community, a charity which facilitates links between business and the community, to work with local schools on mentoring. "But when it comes down to the practicalities of traditional mentoring we found that often mentors and mentees couldn't meet because one or other of them was away or ill, or had an exam, or perhaps companies, who were otherwise in favour of volunteering, couldn't release staff for meetings."

Helen Ackroyd would agree. Working long hours and travelling a lot, she could hardly fit in regular face-to-face meetings with Luke.

So early this year The City of Leeds school and the UniversityBusiness in the Community mentoring project set up a pilot to assess the benefits of e-mentoring. The project has been monitored and evaluated and plans are being made to implement the project in other schools in the region.

Ten ppils in Year 10 were found by the school and trained in using email, and mentors were recruited from business and the university and trained at the university. They were introduced to each other last December at "an ice-breaking" session and now meet roughly every five or six weeks; in between they email each other.

Luke dates an improvement in his morale from this time: "Before Christmas I was down; I was kind of lost. So much to do and not enough time. I told Helen it was all too much, and she said 'Have you got a timetable?', and helped show me how to organise myself."

Not that they always correspond about work. On the surface an unlikely pairing, Helen and Luke actually share an intense interest in sport and IT - "We talk a lot about football", says Luke. Moreover, Luke wants to work in IT and recently Helen has organised a work experience for him.

Jennifer Swanson is a Leeds University student, studying maths. Her mentee is Karla Palmer, aged 15. "It took quite a long time to get any sort of relationship going," says Jennifer, "but since March it's really taken off." One reason, she thinks, is that Karla started doing GCSE music and Jennifer, a talented musician, was able to help.

The school is pleased. "It doesn't work for everyone," says senior teacher, David Ralph. "Some are more confident face to face; others have extreme difficulty composing an email - they lack the literacy skills or get hung up on writing something. They think it has to be perfect and, if it isn't, they're too ashamed to send it."

Carolyn O'Grady is is a freelance writer


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