Someone to watch over them

17th October 2003 at 01:00
So effective are learning mentors, those guardians of pupils in need or on the brink of exclusion, that 1,400 more will be appointed. Harvey McGavin reports

Laura Eland, 14, was in trouble. Things were bad at home and not much better at school. Her attendance was erratic and her work was beginning to suffer.

At 15 she was pregnant, homeless, estranged from her parents and mixing with the wrong crowd. Today, at 16, she has a clutch of GCSEs, a place at college, a home to call her own and a beautiful six-month-old baby girl.

Something happened along the way to pull Laura back from the brink: she met Julia Jones, the lay chaplain at St Mary's Roman Catholic high school in Blackpool, and Julia became Laura's learning mentor.

When the warning signs became too obvious to ignore, Julia stepped in, organising meetings between social services, teachers and those in Laura's family - her grandmother and uncle - prepared to help her. Together they found her a place at a children's home, bought her a new uniform and helped with schoolwork.

Laura split up with the (much older) father of her child and began to get her life back on track. Two weeks after giving birth, Laura was taking her exams. When she discovered she had passed six GCSEs, she wanted Julia to be the first to know. "She flung her arms around me," says Julia. "And then she said 'I couldn't have done it without you, Miss'."

Without her intervention, Julia reckons, Laura would be "in a bedsit somewhere. She was on the edge of social exclusion, very vulnerable".

The hundreds of learning mentors, like Julia - established under Excellence in Cities to take some of the burden of pastoral care from teachers - have helped to change the lives of thousands of youngsters, who like Laura, have more than their share of problems. And the evidence isn't just anecdotal.

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, reported this month that learning support units and mentors were the most effective of all EiC's initiatives, helping reduce truancy and bad behaviour while improving achievement. Their success will see the 900 learning mentors in primary schools and 1,500 in secondaries boosted to a total of 3,800 by the end of next year.

"Learning mentors have become an important part of school provision and are highly valued by teaching colleagues in primary and secondary schools alike, and by parents and pupils, especially those they support directly," the report states.

"Those who are benefiting most understand that the relationship with their mentor is a two-way process and that they must accept responsibility for their own work."

Mentoring brings its own rewards, as Julia's story testifies. When her son's friend died aged 19, she was the person everybody came to for comfort.

"All these young people descended on me," she says. "It really made me stop and evaluate what I was doing with my life." She gave up her job at the bank where she had worked for 27 years and replied to an advert for a learning support assistant at St Mary's. That was three years ago. "It was a tremendous drop in salary and a loss of pension," she says, "but it is the most amazing job I have done in my life. You might never see the rewards of what you are doing - it might be 10 years down the line, but it doesn't matter. It's a vocation."

Lisa Clarke found hers a lot earlier in life. Six months after graduating in early childhood studies, she was taken on as learning mentor at St Bernadette's secondary school in Bristol. Now 24, she finds her relative youth an advantage.

"I'm quite a bit younger than many of their teachers so maybe they (the pupils) talk to me more and I understand what they are talking about."

Not that she encourages too much informality: "Some of the learning mentors work on a first name basis but I'm Miss Clarke to them."

All learning mentors work according to the needs of their children. Lisa's pupils range from those with behavioural or attendance problems to gifted and talented kids - anyone who requires help but is not on the special needs register.

Her pupils agree to four long-term targets. When everyone - teachers, form tutor and parents - is satisfied they have been met, they can move on. "It could take six weeks or two years - there's no set time limit to it."

One of her biggest success stories was a girl in danger of being excluded when Lisa met her two years ago and "who wasn't expected to achieve much or anything at all". This summer, she left school with all eight GCSEs: one C and the rest Ds and Es. "It was because of someone taking a personal interest in her, encouraging her, making her believe in herself and that she could do it," says Lisa. "But it's not all about getting examination results. It's about getting the best out of them as a person."

Andrea Ward, co-ordinator of a learning support unit, took a more conventional route into mentoring. A former science teacher ("but even then I always had kids wanting to talk to me"), she now runs the purpose-built facility at 1,400 pupil Firth Park community school in Sheffield, "a cross between home and school" with a deliberately primary school feel. She liases with primary schools to identify children likely to struggle in the big new school and takes them under her wing.

Two "nurture groups" of children spend a third of their school day at the unit, where they can play co-operative games, indulge in arts and crafts, and have circle time. Play is an important part of her strategy and something many of them missed out on when growing up. "I have got hard, tough, streetwise Year 11 boys and they will play with toy cars like my son would have done when he was four years old."

She also uses art as a means of helping them express themselves and starting to talk about what's on their minds. "When people say they need to learn how to behave, do you give them more of the same - and no kids like being shouted at - or do you have a look at what they are missing? You can see it in their faces how much happier they are. I really believe we are making a difference."

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