Is there a doctor in the house?

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Gifted youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds are being tempted into medicine by a growing band of committed mentors. Rachel Pugh reports

Tossing his woolly hat from hand to hand, 16-year-old Mitchell Thokoza lounges on the plastic school chair, shrugs himself deeper into his baggy T-shirt and declares he has still not ruled out going to medical school, but thinks he might want to study medical computing at university.

Fellow pupil Lukundo Nachona, 15, has no doubts - she is absolutely determined to be a doctor, because she says she wants to help people - but she asks with a hesitant smile: "Do I really have to do physics at A-level?" At this, Paul Lord, a first-year medical student at Manchester University, bursts out laughing and says: "I know what you mean. I hated physics, too. But you can still get in without it. I got around it by doing maths and further maths instead."

If this post-GCSE mentoring session were taking place at Manchester grammar school, it would be unremarkable, but these two teenagers are pupils at one of the city's toughest schools on the edge of Moss Side, Ducie high, where 35 languages are spoken, a security firm guards the building at night, and where only 13 per cent of pupils achieved five A-Cs at GCSE this year.

Lukundo, Mitchell and three others in Year 11 are its first pupils to take part in a scheme set up by Manchester University called the Inner City Mentoring Initiative, which aims to pick up talented youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds with an interest in healthcare in Year 11 and give them mentoring and support through A-levels towards a medical career.

The scheme was the first in the country when it was set up in 1996 by Professor Ray Tallis, a consultant at Hope Hospital. Prof Tallis noted that all Greater Manchester's teaching hospitals were located in areas least likely to attract applicants to medical school. His scheme uses medical undergraduates to mentor pupils identified by teachers as having potential through their last three years at school.

From its beginnings, with eight schools and 19 mentors focusing purely on medicine, it has grown to 130 mentoring partnerships in medicine, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy, with more than 25 schools and sixth-form colleges across Manchester and Salford; 10 to 15 youngsters a year go on to university to study medicine or related fields. The scheme has also spawned Healthcare Mentoring, which links Year 10 pupils with adult mentors over a range of health professions.

"The principle is to help and support every pupil to reach their full potential, by raising their awareness, increasing their aspirations and also improve their attainment," says the administrator of the schemes, Anne Abernethy, widening participation officer in medicine, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy at Manchester University. She reckons the health and education systems need more joined-up thinking. "All we are trying to do is to create an even playing field for these kids."

Those people from the first mentoring intake to go to medical school are now at the end of their fourth year at Manchester. Michael Oliver, 22, from Salford, is the first in his family to go to university and the first from Buile Hill school to go to medical school. He used to meet his mentor in town for a drink, particularly in the stressful run-up to exams. "Without the mentoring scheme I might not have bothered, even though I loved science and was well motivated, because the course is so long and no one else in my family had done anything like this," he says.

The reality at Manchester is that 55 to 60 per cent of medical undergraduates come from private schools, where pupils are groomed for medical school entrance. Some are the children of doctors; they have role models and contacts to set up work experience.

Shoaib Arshad, 22, a fourth-year medical student at Manchester, made it to medical school from Burnage high school, infamous for the knifing of Bangladeshi pupil Ahmed Iqbal Ullah in 1986, and where in 2002 only 21 per cent of pupils pass five GCSEs at grades A-C - with no mentoring scheme to help him.

The experience of doing it alone acted as a catalyst to set up his own mentoring scheme, Medicine Mentored, for Year 9 pupils at his old school.

Manchester University is preparing to roll it out to other schools and use it as a feeder to their existing schemes.

"In a school like this, if you really want to work hard, the teachers are there for you, but you have to ask for everything for yourself because the teachers are aiming at a level lower than the national average. I am trying to give kids the idea in the first place," says Shoaib, who plans to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Some will query the value of mentoring schemes, but Ian Jackson, deputy head at Ducie high school, says: "Our kids lack study skills and aspirations, they have low expectations of their own futures and they do not have the skills to organise themselves. This scheme has kept them on-task and it has raised their aspirations. Our kids need a lot more focus and this is what this has given them. I have noticed a change in their attitude."

Dr Aneez Esmail, researcher on racism and discrimination in medicine and a senior lecturer in general practice at Manchester University, was one of the founders of the Healthcare Mentoring scheme. But he still believes mentoring is a politically convenient way of talking the language of equality without challenging the basic criteria used for entry to medical school.

"A-levels can only be part of the way we measure ability. I reckon a pupil from an inner-city school who gets three Bs at A-level has really got something, but they will not get a look-in. What we should be doing is pouring resources into identifying better criteria," says Dr Esmail.

Contact: mentoring schemesl Science, maths, engineering and technology are being promoted nationally by SETNET - a collaborative forum of education organisations, professional bodies, charities and major companies - through the Ambassadors scheme to make the subjects "cool for kids": The London School of Economics puts on winter schools to introduce students from inner-city London schools to of finance, law and mathematics. Contact Kathleen Moloney: Edinburgh University's Pathways To The Professions scheme is aimed at providing young people from less-privileged homes with the contacts to go into medicine and law through mentoring, university visits and work shadowing. For more information, contact Kathleen Hood: The Sutton Trust - set up by entrepreneur Sir Peter Lampl to give educational opportunities to able children from disadvantaged backgrounds - sponsors summer schools at Bristol, Cambridge, Nottingham, Oxford and Durham universities.

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