Does mentoring actually work?

Schools across the country are embracing mentoring to ensure that disadvantaged children achieve their potential. But new research casts doubt on its efficacy, says Hilary Wilce. The evidence that it improves exam results just doesn't exist
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The Independent Online

It is one of the hottest new ideas in education. Thousands of people are involved in it. The Government is throwing millions its way. A whole business of conferences and training courses is springing up on the back of it. But what if mentoring just doesn't work?

It is one of the hottest new ideas in education. Thousands of people are involved in it. The Government is throwing millions its way. A whole business of conferences and training courses is springing up on the back of it. But what if mentoring just doesn't work?

The idea that struggling children can be helped by having their own special adult to prod and praise them into doing better in school is an idea that gives everyone a warm glow. Mentors feel that they are doing something worthwhile, children enjoy the attention, teachers like the extra pairs of hands, and schools are convinced it boosts those hard-to-define qualities of confidence and self-esteem. But when it comes to bringing about concrete changes in children's behaviour, or how well they do in exams, the evidence just isn't there. Worse still, a recent study by Carol Fitzgibbon, professor of education at Durham University, showed that under-achieving children who were mentored actually did worse in their GCSEs than similar pupils who had no extra help.

The study identified 120 "under-aspiring" 15-year-olds in 15 schools, using a programme of tests that predict school performance. Half were then given various kinds of mentoring help by their schools and half weren't, with the surprising result that the pupils who were mentored came out, on average, at a 0.6 grade lower than the others. The study offered no explanation for this, but Fitzgibbon now plans to carry out trials in 30 schools, to see if the pattern holds up.

"Mentoring is seen as good because the feedback from everyone involved is always so positive," she says. "But you have to look at the data. After all, medics used to feed people phosphorous, and they all said it was making them feel great, but actually it was killing them."

She claims that studies in the United States have shown similarly unpromising results, and her findings are echoed by a three-year study of a London mentoring scheme run by the charity Chance UK with highly disadvantaged children in north London, which found that although the programme was well-run and acclaimed, there were no measurable changes in the children's behaviour at the end of a year.

"On my sceptical days, I do have some doubts about whether children with these severe kinds of difficulties can be helped by mentors," says Ian St James-Roberts, professor in child psychology at the London Institute of Education, who led the research. "Although perhaps if this is done alongside other things, it can."

But Garcia McGrath, chief executive of Chance UK, points out that the sample of children monitored was small, and that mentors are now more carefully chosen and given more training and support. "Teachers say there is significant change in how these mentored children behave. One of them was on the brink of permanent exclusion, yet now he's just been made 'pupil of the week'."

The problem in measuring the effects of mentoring is that mentoring help comes in many different guises, and is often entwined with other programmes aiming to get pupils to do better. In 1999, about a third of secondary schools were offering some sort of mentoring scheme, and the figure is certainly higher now. But this can include volunteers who go into school from time to time to chat to the students, people who send pupils encouraging text messages, teachers who keep a special eye on one or two children in school, or peer mentors drawn from among the pupils themselves.

Then there are the three-and-a-half thousand learning mentors. These paid school ancillary staff are funded under the Government's multi-million pound Excellence in Cities programme, which aims to raise standards in deprived areas (see box). In fact, the Government is so enthusiastic about learning mentors that it plans to have nearly 4,000 in place, in 1,000 schools, by 2004, at a cost of more than £100m.

In many ways, these paid mentors have a clearer role than volunteers, and some schools that use them are already seeing exclusions go down and attendance go up, according to the Chief Inspector of Schools. And the National Foundation for Educational Research has found that more than three quarters of teachers believe learning mentors make a difference to pupils' attainment.

Nick Page, coordinator of Knowsley's Excellence in Cities programme, says mentors are helping to transform his area's schools, and that grades are starting to rise as a result. "Fifty four per cent of our Year 11 mentees exceeded their predicted grades last year. But you have got to do it right. Our mentors are absolutely integrated into the school system. They're proactive. And they're an incredible group of people."

Voluntary mentoring schemes are much more variable and can hit problems. "We've looked closely at the mentors that didn't survive our training," says Garcia McGrath. "A lot of people do have this rosy rescue fantasy about how they are going to change everything for this child. You have to be realistic about what's possible." One of the things Chance UK now does is to recruit more mentors from the same ethnic and social background as the children being mentored.

An audit of mentoring schemes in Manchester high schools, carried out by Manchester Metropolitan University, concluded that the factors fundamental for success included real commitment by the school to the process, recognition by teachers of what mentors do, enough time and suitable venues for mentoring sessions, and structured evaluation.

"We've come across things that have been set up very quickly, with little dialogue between the school and the organisation running the mentoring," says Norman Garner, quality manager for the government-backed National Mentoring Network. "If something's bolted on like that, it probably won't work."

To address the issue of quality, the NMN has recently launched an Approved Provider Standard, which any mentoring programme can apply for, plus a national Excellence in Mentoring award for schools' mentoring programmes. The Castle School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Taunton, is an early winner of this, and headmaster Kevin Freedman is convinced that mentoring is crucial to the way his pupils' attainments and confidence levels are rising.

"Our GCSE point score has gone up dramatically over the past five years, which means grades have gone up across the board. We believe we've raised the average attainment of every student in every subject by a grade."

The school mentors pupils in Years 10 and 11, using about 130 external mentors – among them parents and former pupils – and school staff. It targets not only disadvantaged children, but others who might have less immediately visible problems, and also makes sure that its mentors are well-prepared, supported and informed.

"Mentoring isn't rocket science," says Freedman. "It can be something as simple as walking down a corridor and saying, 'How are you doing? How did that French go in the end?' But we all like to feel someone's taking an interest."

Having so many outsiders coming in and out of the building has had other knock-on effects, he says, making parents more aware of what goes on in today's schools, and transforming the school atmosphere.

These days, mentoring can often feel like flavour of the month. "But it's much more than that for us," says Freedman. "I don't think it'll ever go."

A learning mentor for every occasion

Pat Crawford is the learning mentor for Simonswood Primary School in Kirby, on Merseyside. Unlike a voluntary mentor who goes into a school to support a single child, she is a full-time, paid member of staff, closely involved in all aspects of school life. Her job is paid for out of Knowsley's – the local education authority's – Excellence in Cities budget. One minute she might be greeting parents at the school gate, the next taking her place at a meeting as a member of the school's senior management team.

"My job is to take away any obstacles to learning that children might have, and they come in many forms," she says. She runs a school breakfast club, chases up absent pupils, runs a "Cool School" club for poor attenders, goes into classes to talk about friendships and feelings, supports children who are having a difficult time, deals with child protection issues, liaises with education welfare workers, and makes home visits. As a former social worker and bereavement nurse, she has a warm, calm manner and a natural sense of authority, which the school values. "Her work impinges on every area of school life," says the headteacher Phil Newton. "The benefits of having a mentor like Pat are just not measurable."

Behaviour, attendance and test scores show the impact of her work, and the children like having her in school. "She's kind and smiley," says one eight-year-old. "She's a friend you can always talk to," agrees another.

Pat says the job needs a delicate hand to navigate between teachers, parents and pupils; authority to get things done; and integrity in handling confidential information. Occasionally, she gets feedback on the impact she has. "I spoke to one mother about her depression, and the effects it could be having on her children, and she told me how I'd helped her see things in a new way." Teachers say how much better behaved children have been since she started working with them. A test of her importance came when the school building was razed to the ground by arson and the school wasmoved to a temporary home. "Pattalked to the children about what happened and gave them time to let out how they felt," says Newton. "One fantastic thing was how we were able to carry on more-or-less as normal."