There are various kinds of mentors, but the ones working in schools are usually known as learning mentors, and their job is to help children overcome barriers to their education inside and outside the classroom. This means working with individual children or small groups (usually in schools in less affluent areas), and doing all kinds of things from chasing up latecomers and working with pupils on their study goals, to running discussion groups on bullying or anger management, liaising with social workers and educational psychologists, visiting parents at home and running after-school activities. It's a funny old job - part teacher, part substitute mum or dad, part social worker and part dogsbody.
All of which means there is usually a lot of scope to make of it what you will. If you are someone who is a good listener, isn't phased by multiple problems, and can build warm links with children or adolescents, it could be enjoyable and rewarding. However, you need to be aware that schools use mentors in very different ways. Some consider them so important, they are represented on the senior management team; others keep them at the margins.
There are no academic entry requirements, although a background in social services would be seen as a plus. Posts are usually fixed-term, and pay varies between about £12,000 and £20,000, depending on how highly the local authority rates mentors, and on your own skills and experience. And there isn't much scope for advancement. You could, if you were lucky, rise to supervising your fellow mentors, but that's about it. It's a job mainly done for the love of it, and isn't the best route to go down if you are looking to build a substantial career.
And another word of warning: many mentor jobs are funded by government programmes set up to tackle social exclusion. If the plug is pulled on these - as it well might be since political short-termism so often usurps the long, tortuous haul of raising educational standards - the jobs are likely to go, too.
For more on mentoring, visit the National Mentoring Network's website at www.nmn.org.uk.
If you want to work in a school, what is wrong with teaching? Maybe you have been put off by horror stories in the press about bad behaviour and so on, but most schools are not like that. You should see if any of your local colleges or universities offer teaching taster days and try them. I did, five years ago, and I never looked back!
Jesse Falade, Birmingham
Mentors have been given plaudits by heads, teachers and Ofsted for improving pupils' attendance and behaviour, and for building links with their local communities. But despite all these personal votes of confidence, the hard evidence doesn't seem to be there. In fact, studies in the United States show that mentors only have a very limited influence on some children. So be careful. You could find yourself in a frustrating job, or discover that educational fashion has moved on.
Guy Ibbotson, Manchester
If you became a teaching assistant, you would be working in a classroom, and you would get to deal with children across the board, not just the ones with problems. These days, there is so much scope to take specialist courses in things like learning difficulties, once you've done the basic on-the-job training. It's a great job -- except for the pay. But no one in their right mind chooses to work in a school for the money, and you could always train as a teacher if you decide to climb higher.
Josie Swale, Staffordshire
Next week's quandary
I live in a village in the south of England. My children take the school bus to their nearest secondary school, four miles away. The next school is 12 miles away. I have pored over the details of the new five-year schools strategy, but still don't understand how "choice" and "specialist schools" are supposed to help me. Enlightenment, please!
Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 9 August, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to email@example.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraserReuse content