When Vicky meets Eileen

31st January 1997 at 00:00
The success of a new project in Grampian is proving that mentoring schemes can help children from a variety of social backgrounds. Judy Mackie reports

When Vicky meets Eileen for their weekly chat, there's no shortage of conversation. The pair spend their lunchbreak catching up on each other's news, taking turns to listen and encourage, sharing the occasional joke.

It's obvious the chatty brunette and the quieter blonde are friends and confidantes. But Vicky and Eileen are no Thelma and Louise. They've known each other only a matter of weeks, their relationship is conducted in a quiet classroom, and, while Eileen is 50, Vicky is only 14.

An unlikely friendship? Not at all, according to advocates of adult-pupil mentoring. Vicky and Eileen are among a growing number of eager mentors and "mentees'' to participate in a new business-school mentoring programme set up by Grampian Enterprise's Education Business Partnership (EBP).

Piloted by Vicky's school, Aberdeen's Oldmachar Academy, since the beginning of the autumn term, the programme has quickly attracted the interest of other secondary schools in the area, and a further seven have now joined. Thirty mentors are being matched with pupils, and the EBP is keen to attract more participants.

Business-school mentoring is not a new concept in Scotland - several schemes have been running in the Strathclyde area since the early 1990s - but, while it has traditionally been seen as a means of encouraging children from poorer families to develop higher aspirations, it is now being applied to youngsters from all kinds of backgrounds.

Isobel Maughan, manager of Grampian EBP, believes that "all sorts of young people can benefit from having a mentor, regardless of their economic circumstances. The criteria we prefer to work with are under-achievement, low self-esteem and unfulfilled potential, and these can affect children from a variety of backgrounds."

Grampian's mentoring programme involves working adults with an interest in young people being "matched'' with individual pupils (normally from Secondary 3 or 4) who may benefit from having an older role model who is not a parent, relative or teacher. The meetings between adults and pupils are carefully co-ordinated within the school setting, but are as informal as possible and, after the initial meeting, take place on a one-to-one basis, normally during the lunch hour.

The idea is to encourage a trusting relationship, at a crucial stage in the young person's school career, which may help him or her to gain more confidence, set personal goals, understand more about the world of work, or build networking contacts. Set within a personal and social education context, the arrangement is intended both to enhance the pupil's personal development and stimulate ideas about his or her future.

The mentors come from a variety of backgrounds, although many are involved in training and human resource management, and range in age from early 20s to mid-60s. No particular qualifications are required, but a genuine interest in young people, a friendly, non-judgmental manner and a long-term commitment to the programme are essential. They have various reasons for participating, such as representing their company as part of an official education or community initiative, acting on a desire to "give something back'' to education, or having a professional interest in the personal development of young people.

The programme was launched with the support of the UK's National Mentoring Network (NMN), following a drive in 1995 to raise the profile of mentoring in Scotland. Nine areas are now actively involved, stretching from the Borders to the Highlands. John Sweeney, the network's Scottish EBP representative and manager of the first mentoring programme, in Renfrewshire, believes mentoring is a unique way of addressing social issues.

"A lot of business-school activities are based on sponsorship, but mentoring is different,'' he says, "because it involves a true partnership, with both partners working together to deal with community issues. Youngsters can be un-der-achievers for a variety of social reasons, and mentoring is a tool for getting together to find community solutions."

Isobel Maughan and her team have been quick to address the worries which are the natural response to any initiative. Schools have been reassured that mentors will not attempt to become freelance guidance teachers, while mentors have been relieved to find that they are not required to be priest-confessors or models of perfection.

"Mentoring should not involve any in-depth counselling or shouldering of secret burdens," says Isobel. "The guidance teacher, who works closely at all times with both pupil and mentor, is the professional within the partnership and is there to give advice whenever it is required. The initiative is not intended for pupils with emotional or behavioural difficulties, who require more specialist support."

Training is informal, but informative. Mentors in Grampian recently attended an induction meeting, which brought schools, the EBP and the mentors together to encourage networking and explain the aims of the programmes. Smaller meetings have been set up to introduce mentors to their individual schools, and mentors have received packs giving general information on their school, their pupil and the state of the education system. Some Scottish EBPs have chosen to give their mentors training in counselling and communication, but Grampian will address such needs as they arise.

Without exception, parents approached for permission to put their children forward for mentoring have been enthusiastic; their trust in the new scheme is testimony to the great care taken by the programme partners both in screening potential mentors (each is subject to a police check) and monitoring the process. As a further safeguard, female mentors are matched with girls, and men with boys.

Matching mentors to pupils can be as daunting as running a dating agency, and the outcome is just as unpredictable. However, both partners are given a good grounding in what to expect from the relationship, and either party is free to withdraw from the arrangement at any time if they feel it is not working out.

Meeting each other for the first time is probably the most nerve-wracking part of the process. Christine McQuarrie, formerly of Renfrewshire EBP, helped set up and run one of Scotland's first mentoring programmes, yet still had butterflies when faced with her own mentee, after she left her job to work for EBP in Glasgow.

"I understood then what mentors meant when they used to tell me they found themselves twittering at that first meeting," Christine says. "Once you get over those first few minutes, though, it's a very rewarding experience. "

Eileen Price, Vicky's mentor in Aberdeen, agrees. "I was quite apprehensive about being a mentor. I thought, 'Am I good enough to do this?' But when I actually met Vicky and found her so easy to get on with, I realised that it was a case of just being myself.

"I look forward to my meetings with Vicky. I don't have a daughter, so I find it really interesting to talk to her and hear about what's going on in her life."

Vicky, too, is always happy to see Eileen. She became involved in the mentoring programme after telling her guidance teacher she felt she needed someone older, and from outside her family, to talk to about various issues which were confusing her. Her parents have given their full support.

Proudly, she takes out her appointment card to show the dates of their regular meetings throughout the autumn. "We talk about all kinds of things. Eileen is a very helpful friend."

Schools looking for further information about mentoring in their area are advised to contact their local EBP office. National Mentoring Network, tel: 0161 787 3135. Scottish NMN representative John Sweeney, Renfrewshire EBP, tel: 0141 842 3584

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