Tapping energies

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Well-matched mentors offer students an introduction to the world of business. Jerome Monahan reports

Tom O'Connor of the businessschools links organisation Norfolk Exchange has a clear idea of the signs to look for in a young person likely to have entrepreneurial flare. "They may be among the most challenging students to teach, forever pushing against the constraints of the curriculum. At times they will perform well, but they can be erratic - disappointing when not motivated."

There are candidates to fit this profile in every school, but if their potential remains undiscovered they risk being lumped among the disaffected or directionless.

"One of the most powerful methods of fostering young people's abilities is through mentoring," says Vince Hagedorn of East Mentoring Forum.

Established in November 2003, the forum promotes mentoring initiatives, networking and training in six target counties - Norfolk, Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex. Yet, despite its growing catalogue of success stories and a 1,500 strong membership, there is still a huge job to do, says Hagerdon, persuading schools and businesses to recognise the mutual benefits that can flow from well thought-out mentoring schemes.

The forum chair, Ken Lewis, has a lifetime of business savvy behind him as founder and former managing director of Dutton Engineering, in Sandy, Bedfordshire. "My firm has survived the busts of the last few decades and has great opportunities to offer young people." A meeting with Marie Baker, headteacher of Sandy Upper School, harnessed this potential.

Together they hatched a scheme that brought Dutton's business accounts manager, Brendan Leigh, into the school to support disenchanted Year 10 pupil Matt Legatt. "My sessions with Brendan gave me the space to be sensible," says Matt. "He never judged me, but he did ask me why I messed around in lessons. After a couple of weeks I started to trust him. I definitely gained in confidence."

Brendan was not there to recruit anyone for Dutton - though Matt's decision to join the firm for his training when he realised sixth form was not for him has been the cherry on the mentoring cake. "The process was hugely rewarding for me," says Brendan. "It was great building up a rapport with Matt - mentoring is a good way of developing one's own soft skills."

"I was lucky, hitting it off with Brendan first time," says Matt. "Getting the right people together is important. It could be destructive."

At Aylsham High School, deputy head Julie Ward has become adept at mentormentee matching. "Training mentors is very important," she says.

"They are carefully vetted and police checked, of course, and then it is important to prepare them to cope with the problems that can come up when working with young people - quickly establishing their boundaries and explaining that they cannot promise to keep secrets."

Among Julie Ward's success stories is Duncan Bradshaw, who was paired with someone running a local computer business.

"He brought in the components one week and got us to construct a computer for ourselves," explains Duncan. "Thanks to this, I realised what courses I wanted to pursue at college - and, I hope, university. It might have taken me a lot longer to work out what I wanted on my own."

Sarah Daniels has also mentored Aylsham pupils, taking time out from her health and safety consultancy to support a group of girls tackling business studies. "Work and emotions are particularly closely allied for teenagers and I was clearly helpful as a sounding board for the girls - an adult who wasn't a relation or a teacher," she explains. "I was also able to demand high standards from my group - they knew I didn't have to be there and came to value the fact that I examined their schoolwork in the light of the actual business problems and challenges I face."

At King Harold School, Waltham Forest, business development manager Malcolm Burnett is refining an even more sophisticated model - one that harnesses the latest in personality profiling to establish the disposition and needs of mentees before they are paired up with mentors drawn from managers at a nearby Sainsbury's distribution centre. "We are trying to get students to look at themselves to see where their strengths and weaknesses lie," he says. "As well as building self-awareness and confidence, the process also boosts the immediate impact of the mentor's job, giving them insights and pointing them quickly in the direction of their mentees' needs."

"I could not recommend mentoring enough," says Sarah Daniels. "At its best it can be hugely rewarding, giving one a chance to reflect on one's own assumptions and attitudes. It was quite an eye-opener facing up to how much young people today have to contend with."

For Julie Ward, the value of bringing business people in to mentor pupils is the relevance it can inject into their studies.

East Mentoring Forum - free registration gives access to case studies and research materials www.mentfor.co.uk

Norfolk Exchange www.norfolk-exchange.org.ukcontentdefault.asp

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