Mentoring is giving voice to ‘drowned-out dreams’

19th April 2018 at 00:00
One ambitious scheme, anchored in schools, has spotted that many disadvantaged pupils lack the supportive adult relationships to succeed – but it has a solution

Back in 2004, serial entrepreneur Iain MacRitchie took on a job that led him to become “possessed” and “traumatised” by the plight of care-experienced young people.

The setting was an English business that was then running 90 children’s homes, five schools and a foster agency; it was failing both financially and in terms of the support it was offering the young people it served, who were mainly aged 16-18.

MacRitchie had been called in to do what he does best: turning the fortunes of a business around. Having introduced mergers, closing some schools and opening others, he set about changing the culture of the organisation. By the time he was finished three years later, most of its sites were rated outstanding by English inspectorate Ofsted.

But it made no difference to the teenagers: their outcomes did not improve.

The system was to blame, says MacRitchie, who to date has come to the aid of 18 businesses, including well-known brands such as fashion retailer Hobbs. The teenagers had started to do better, but local pressure to reduce costs led to them being moved to different homes and schools.

“In some cases, their outcomes got worse because they were moved more,” says MacRitchie. “That’s what kicked this off – I was possessed by that. I would not normally accept that you have got a system that does not produce better outcomes. Then, when I looked at the outcomes of care-experienced young people more generally, I saw that they had not improved for 30 years, irrespective of lots of people trying.”

‘Defined by talent’

So, 11 years ago, MacRitchie – who was born and raised in Glasgow, attended Hyndland Secondary and studied business at the University of Strathclyde – started to unpick how looked-after young people might be better supported. Three years into that process, he hit upon mentoring.

“We can’t treat the past and we can’t change the current circumstances these young people find themselves in – others have the tough job of supporting these family situations in the community,” says MacRitchie. “What we can do is make sure the young person understands one thing: they don’t need to be defined by their current circumstances and they can be defined by their talent and potential. The idea is we give them the time and space in education to think about that, and to come up with a better version of their future.”

His initiative to do just that, MCR Pathways, is now established in 29 Glasgow secondaries. The project has more than 2,000 registered volunteer mentors on its books, is mentoring 622 young people who are either care-experienced or have been put forward by their schools, and is about to “go national” with the support of the Scottish government.

A programme inspired by MCR Pathways got underway in Dundee last year, but MacRitchie plans to bring the model to the rest of the country himself. Eventually, he would like mentoring to be “just the norm of what happens in schools”.

He estimates that MCR Pathways services will be established in 100 secondaries within three years and his long-term goal is that the programme will eventually be running in 300 of Scotland’s 360 secondary schools.

The cost per secondary is £55,000, which equates to about £800 per pupil. The money pays for a full-time mentor coordinator, the recruitment and training of the volunteers who carry out the mentoring, and the Talent Taster programme that gives pupils bite-sized work and education experiences (with work experience, for instance, they choose from a menu of 200 jobs across 48 organisations).

“We go on about attainment, but we need to show young people why [attainment] is relevant. The Talent Taster is about giving relevance to attainment,” he says.

MacRitchie had taken five years out of his business career to dedicate himself full-time to MCR Pathways. He has now extended that to seven years, meaning three more years of commuting at weekends from Glasgow to his home in Buckinghamshire, south-east England.

The latest figures from MCR Pathways suggest the investment has been worth it. They show that, of the 76 mentored young people who left Glasgow schools last year, 86 per cent are in jobs, college or university, which is up from 81 per cent the previous year. For non-mentored, care-experienced school leavers, that figure is 50 per cent (see graphic, above).

It may seem surprising that one hour per week of talking one-on-one with an adult could make such a difference. But MacRitchie, who is himself a mentor and has seen his own young mentee journey “from a homeless unit to medical school”, believes we grossly underestimate the dearth of supportive adult relationships many of these youngsters have. He describes MCR Pathways as a bridge between disadvantaged pupils and the wealth of jobs, apprenticeships, and university and college courses out there.

Billy McMillan, who is in his first year of studying society, politics and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland, was mentored for three years by 71-year-old former primary headteacher Mary Hunter Toner, who describes herself as McMillan’s “educational granny”.

Ask Billy if he would be at university without having undergone the mentoring, and the answer is an emphatic “no”. He puts the programme’s power down to the fact that the volunteer mentor has no agenda other than to “help you do what you want” (see box, left).

But not all young people who could benefit from the service decide to sign up. MacRitchie estimates that when MCR Pathways becomes embedded in a school – a process that takes at least a year – about 80 per cent of eligible young people take part, 10 per cent opt out and 10 per cent are deemed unable to take part for various reasons, such as mental health difficulties.

MacRitchie says that he is determined to reach 100 per cent uptake. As he says: “I just can’t accept that there’s talent and potential, but zero chance to realise it.”

@Emma_Seith

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