Tutoring schemes, which were initially limited mostly to students in higher education, are expanding rapidly, with a growing number of FE colleges recognising the advantages to their students and pupils from local primary and secondary schools.
Students normally work with pupils in classrooms for a few hours each week. As well as assisting teachers, the students act as role models for children who may be considering further or higher education.
An estimated 40 FE colleges operate tutoring schemes compared with about 135 HE institutions. John Hughes, manager of the International Mentoring and Tutoring Project, says FE provides the greatest potential for growth in UK tutoring, as most of HE was already involved. "FE is changing in character, " he explains. "There are a lot more mature students who can pass on their experience to children in schools."
Not only can FE students persuade youngsters of the advantages of remaining in education beyond 16, but they may also show how FE colleges act as a bridge between school and higher education.
Five years ago, City and Islington College was among the first FE colleges to introduce a tutoring scheme. Each week, up to 12 mature students on one-year access courses visit primary schools in north London.
Barry Rowswell, the college's school liaison officer, says the students, many of whom had children of their own, were able to assist teachers as well as developing their interpersonal skills. Some were interested in teaching as a career.
College departments also receive regular visits from undergraduates who act as role models for FE students hoping to go on to higher education. "We are a recipient of tutoring as well as a supplier. There is a cascade taking place throughout education," he says.
Students at Tower Hamlets College in east London may receive formal recognition for their work as tutors through a new professional studies module accredited by the Open Colleges Federation (OCF). The module was developed with the Urban Learning Foundation which finds placements for teachers who want to work in urban areas.
All 50 student tutors at Tower Hamlets are taking A-levels and hope to go on to higher education. They normally undertake a 10-week placement at their former secondary school, providing the school does not have its own sixth form. "They are acting as ambassadors for further education," says project co-ordinator Meenal Gupta.
Accreditation is voluntary with 30 of this year's tutors opting to try to gain the module. "It will assist them with their application to university," she adds. As the module had been accredited by the OCF, other colleges can also now offer it to student tutors.
Although students from Imperial College, London, were tutoring as long ago as 1975, formal schemes only developed in the late 1980s.
About 200 universities and colleges around the world are now involved in tutoring approximately 200,000 children.
Last month, delegates from 34 countries attended the first international conference on student tutoring and mentoring, held in London's Docklands. The UK is generally considered to lead the world in tutoring, yet the concept of mentoring, where adults develop one-to-one relationships with children, has its roots in the United States.
Marc Freedman, an internationally-recognised expert on mentoring, said one reason why mentoring had developed earlier in the US was the scale of that country's social problems. Schemes such as Big BrothersBig Sisters, which began nearly a century ago, encourage adults from professional classes to mentor young people from deprived backgrounds.
Schools in the United States are now examining tutoring as a way of developing mentoring projects. In some cases, young people are being encouraged to take the place of adult mentors.
"One of the great advantages of using students is that the child has a relationship with someone who is in college and gets a glimpse of what is around the corner." says Freedman, director of special projects at PublicPrivate Ventures, a US organisation which focuses on helping youngsters in poverty.
Students might help with basic tasks such as how to apply to college and gain financial assistance. "As more adults go out to work, more children are in a position where they have to raise themselves."
Tutoring schemes are also increasingly being seen as a way of extending educational opportunities for children in developing countries. The University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania has introduced a tutoring scheme to encourage women to enter engineering. Black female students from the university's engineering faculty work alongside girls in school.
Margaret Rutherford, director of the college of science at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, said poor-quality teachers in developing countries often felt threatened by the presence of well-educated students.
"People are concerned about bridging programmes between school and university so that educational opportunities are widened but exit standards from university are maintained," she says.
Universities were keen to develop greater contact with black feeder schools but black students, who normally made the best role models, often had to pay their own way through higher education and therefore could not afford the time to act as a tutor, added Professor Rutherford.