This novel idea - based on a much bigger initiative carried out in Israel - aims to help secondary school pupils in educationally disadvantaged areas do better in their studies, achieve higher grades in their examinations, and, if possible, go to university or college.
"I am very confident this can work," declares Alan Evans, the national co-ordinator. "We know mentoring makes a difference to pupils' self-esteem and motivation. What I saw in Israel, which has the finest scheme in the world and where one in five students act as a paid mentor, is that the process leads to a dramatic response. I am confident we'll see improved GCSE results and more university applications."
The initiative has been welcomed warmly by the universities. Baroness Warwick, the chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, points out that everybody benefits. "I encourage students to do this work, and am pleased that the Government is thinking along these lines too," she says.
The students gain useful, satisfying experience which enhances their CVs; the pupils get individual attention which they would otherwise not have; and higher education has excellent ambassadors to send among those who are most in need of positive images.
A small pilot scheme is to run for two years and will involve six universities: South Bank, Aston, Teesside, Northumbria, Newcastle and the University of Central England. Some 600 mentors are being recruited and trained to be "in post" by next September. They are assigned four pupils each in local schools in six of the Government's Education Action Zones - North Southwark, two zones in Birmingham, Middlesbrough, South Tyneside and Newcastle.
Conceived by the Schools Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Employment, the initiative is an example of "joined- up education", using students from higher education to inspire pupils lower down the academic ladder.
Both groups are being carefully selected. The students are chosen only after rigorous interview and two days' training organised by Mr Evans, who is based at Cardiff University. Undergraduates who do not pass muster are failed. Those who are signed up cannot drop out once they have started the mentoring.
The pay is not handsome (pounds 5 an hour) though it is better than some other student-type jobs. It is a challenge, however. Each mentor has a heavy workload - 120 hours of mentoring during the academic year, which will earn them a total of pounds 600. And they are not allowed to take another paid job during term time. "We are asking a great deal of them," Mr Evans admits.
The mentors visit the pupils for whom they are responsible on school premises. They see them individually and give them advice on organising homework, managing time, writing essays or, if they can't help, they can point the youngsters in the direction of a teacher who can. Every week the mentors are required to draw up an action plan for each pupil. These plans examine the progress which has been made and work at setting new goals for them. They also talk to the pupils about longer-term goals such as what they want to do with their lives after their GCSEs?
Each mentor is supposed to spend an hour preparing for each hour of contact time with their pupils.
It is important to give the pupils praise for their achievements, the mentors are told. "We train them in being supportive," says Mr Evans. "If you want people to address things that they are not doing well, you have to be positive," he says. "Otherwise they will retreat and drop out." The mentors are told they must be willing to listen to their pupils. (The main reason why students fail the training is that they don't listen.)
They are also told that they must respect the person they are mentoring and it is stressed how important it is that they want them to succeed, indeed that they should be determined that their pupils should not fail. "You can't be a mentor if you don't like young people or if your studies are shaky," says Mr Evans. "Neither can you be a mentor if you have a parent who is seriously ill."
When Mr Evans visited Israel he took a close-up look at the Perach project, whose name takes the Hebrew word for "flowering" or "developing". As many as 20,000 out of some 100,000 Israeli students take part, and the project has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. For Israeli students, mentoring provides much-needed cash. Tuition fees in Israel are higher than in the United Kingdom but the mentoring stipend covers about half their fees.
There are those sceptical about whether the new mentoring project is simply another "band aid" policy - a plaster to cover educational problems rather than addressing the deeper cause. Some argue that the mentors are doing things that the schools themselves should be doing. They wonder if the scheme is an expensive way to achieve relatively small gains.
"I can well see that there are young people who may not be receiving personal attention from their parents or teachers, particularly if they are in classes of 30," points out Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University. "This is well worth a try. But we need to know the effects of the scheme on both the young people who are picked for mentoring and those who are not. This is potentially divisive."
Proponents of the scheme point to the failure of modern government in so many areas of social policy. For them, small-scale experiments are seen as far more preferable than large-scale state intervention.
"It is unrealistic to think that schools can provide this kind of one- to-one tuition for the pounds 2,600 they receive annually for each secondary school pupil," declares Mr Evans, adding, "teachers would be under such stress that it would simply be counter-productive."
STEVEN, 15, SAYS:
`IT'S GOOD TO HAVE SOMEONE CLOSER TO OUR OWN AGE TO TALK TO. THEY TEND TO LISTEN MORE'
JULIE MACKENZIE, 20, doesn't look very much older than the 15- and 16-year-olds she is mentoring, though she may be more stylishly dressed. Only two years ago she was grappling with A-levels herself. The content of modern syllabuses doesn't faze her and she is au fait with the worries of the teenagers in her charge.
She is a student of English language and literature at Newcastle University, the first in her family to go to university. She has also just begun to take care of four pupils, two boys and two girls, who are taking GCSEs at Hedworthfield Comprehensive, South Tyneside, next summer.
Julie has been told they are at risk of "failing" their exams and ending up with grade Ds rather than the coveted C grades, equivalent to the old O-level passes. At the same time, Julie knows they have academic potential.
One of the four is thinking about going to university; the others aren't sure. One is having difficulties with essay writing, a second wants help with planning for exams. "A couple are a bit sick of school," she says.
The pupils generally approve of her efforts. Gary Ford, 15, is pleased to be getting help from someone who is neither a teacher nor a parent. Steven Douglass, 15, says the good thing is that the mentors have recently been through what the pupils are going through now. "It's good to have someone closer to our age to talk to," he says. "They tend to listen more."
All the pupils know that they have been chosen for the mentoring process because they need "a little push" to get better grades. For Lauren Spiers, 16, the real merit of the scheme is the one-to-one help that Julie Mackenzie can give. "You can ask her things that you couldn't ask a teacher because the teachers don't have time," she says.
Karen Moor, 15, needs help with English essays and revision. She also wants to go to university, and her parents want that too, even though they did not go themselves.
However, not all the student mentors are as young as Julie. John Dowling, another Newcastle University student, is 42. He is mentoring four boys at a comprehensive in Newcastle and hopes he can be a role model for them. He has recently qualified as a junior football coach which gives him no end of kudos on soccer-mad Tyneside.