Mentoring is not just for pupils who lack self-esteem or support at home. Nor is it simply for those who find it difficult to talk to parents or teachers or those who are exposed to negative influences, those who have a narrow outlook or those who have lost interest in school.
"Mentoring can also be crucial to pupils who are doing well academically but are still not achieving their potential," according to John Sweeney, chief executive of Renfrewshire Education Business Partnership (REBP) in west central Scotland. "Also, that pupil might not be well prepared for the world of work. But a mentor from the business world can introduce a degree of reality into their lives."
In 1997, the Renfrewshire partnership was awarded a three-year contract to manage an "enhanced guidance and mentoring programme" in eight local secondary schools. Since February last year, this has involved some 80 volunteers from the business world and the public sector mentoring 14- and 15-year-old pupils one to one for at least one hour per month.
The Renfrewshire EBP, a member of the UK and the Scottish Mentoring Network, is looking to expand the scheme to all of the 29 secondaries in the Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire and Inverclyde council areas by the end of the next school session in July 2000. This will involve volunteer mentors from at least an additional 30 companies on top of the 70 already involved. Renfrewshire EBP has substantial backing from local businesses wishing to put something back into the community. While the mentoring scheme has a basic budget of pound;24,000, REBP reckons that in kind and in time the business community's involvement already tops pound;100,000.
The aims of the programme are those shared by similar schemes, ranging from enhancing pupils' confidence to improving their motivation.
But REBP is also looking to develop mentoring in line with specific needs such as encouraging more girls into science and technology, using mentors as role models, and focusing on modern languages for the world of work.
Mentors attend a general induction programme followed by a school induction prior to one-to-one meetings with pupils. Mentors, REBP and school guidance staff meet at the school each term. Also, all mentors offer workplace visits.
REBP says the programme is effective in improving attendance, attitude (fewer exclusions) and achievement (better exam performances) because the mentormentee relationship is non-authoritarian.
Mr Sweeney comments: "A pupil with behavioural problems who might not listen to a teacher might listen to a mentor because he or she is not part of the system and is not being paid to see that pupil. Pupils do come to appreciate this.
But what do firms and their employees get out of it? "Undoubtedly, it's good for public relations and staff development," Mr Sweeney says. "It helps the individual's personal development and raises their awareness and, as with the mentee, develops their own 'soft skills"'.
As mentoring becomes more popular, Renfrewshire EBP adds a warning. "Because it's good PR, good for a company going for an Investors in People award or whatever, you have to be careful people are there for the right reasons," says Margaret Houston, the partnership's development officer.
Parents and pupils stress the virtues of the direct mentoring relationship. Pupils have "more confidence" in themselves and "more respect" for others. But perhaps the most telling was one pupil's comment: "I'm looking at people more now". She did not mean she was examining other people's lives. She meant eye contact - a simple reflection of the small steps needed to give youngsters a big boost in self-confidence.