Mentors offer way out
Shajuftha Hussain and Sofina Aziz, year 9 pupils at Hinde House School, Sheffield, have already decided on their careers: medicine and law. Their ambitions are supported, not only by their teachers and parents but by their mentors.
The school, in a fairly deprived area of the city in which Education Secretary David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has his constituency, has recently embarked on a mentoring project for some of the girls from Asian backgrounds.
Every Wednesday afternoon the mentors come to the school to see their charges for an hour during time set aside for guidance, and they are also available on the telephone.
The girls are enthusiastic about the help they receive which, they say, has given them greater confidence about their prospects for the future. "We can speak to them about racism or boys," said Sofina. "We would feel quite shy of talking to teachers or parents about that."
One of the mentors, Saba Hussein, a psychology graduate who's now a researcher for the Sheffield branch of the Department for Education and Employment, comes from a similar background to the girls. She was born in the city and her parents came from Pakistan, so she understands the conflicting pressures they may face from home and school.
"I can see myself in them," she said. "I was like them 10 years ago and I would've liked someone to turn to. You can't always turn to teachers."
Graham Elliott, the head, agreed. "Schools can't do everything to make pupils feel that bit taller."
The scheme has the backing of parents largely because Eaniqa Khan, the form teacher co-ordinating it, also comes from a Pakistani family. She wrote to parents seeking their permission. Fathers were especially reassured to find she was in charge, she said.
Other mentors include a doctor, a civil servant and a management trainer. "We had difficulty in getting hold of them and one had to stop because of other pressures."
The idea grew from a project called "If I can you can" which was set up in 1994 by four Sheffield women with education and business backgrounds to encourage girls to take up non-traditional careers.
It established a register of more than 100 professional women who were prepared to visit schools and tell pupils, parents and teachers about their jobs and themselves.
The project was so successful that it is now part of the Sheffield Education Business Partnership and the DFEE has seconded one of its staff to help run it. "It got too big for my front room," said Christine Barton, one of the founders.
But she became increasingly concerned about the lack of women from ethnic minorities on the register. "It was not right that all the role models were white middle-class women. I compared it with how I would feel as a disabled person (she is confined to a wheelchair) if an able-bodied person was telling me how to do things." So she asked Ms Hussein to do some research on the reasons for the shortage.
From the 15 women she interviewed, Ms Hussein found enthusiasm for the aims of the project, but lack of time and confidence prevented many from taking part. A few, however, were willing to register and become mentors.
Dr Barton contacted Mr Elliott, an old colleague, as she knew he would be keen on the mentoring scheme. But once it was set up "we've stood right back from it. We've encouraged Eaniqa and Saba to do it their own way. They know how different the culture is in the girls' homes. I didn't understand too much about it until I started working with Saba."
Ms Hussein's research showed that black and Asian girls lacked role models, careers advice was based on stereotypes and employment prospects looked bleak.
Most were dissatisfied with some aspects of their schooling. They felt confusion, resentment and lack of understanding, she found.
"I wanted to do something, I didn't want to just sit at home like some Asian girls, do nothing and then just get married," one interviewee told her. "I wanted to do something but I didn't know where to go or who to ask about advice."
Another said: "I don't hold any hopes for jobs. I think everything is degenerating, especially for black people in Britain."
Dr Barton said she sometimes wondered, in the light of these findings, how successful the equal opportunities movement had been. But she and Ms Hussein are optimistic about the future for the girls. "They are bright pupils. " Mrs Khan agrees, and wants to extend the scheme to younger children and boys.
"It has made a lot of difference to us," Shajuftha said. "Whatever they're doing, we can do."