My friend and mentor

Inner-city pupils have found friendship and encouragement from a group of City high-flyers. Lucy Hodges reports on a plan to give children role models
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The Independent Online
Before Sheuneen Hoang met her mentor it had not entered her head to apply for university. The summit of her ambitions was a technical or vocational qualification. University was for others, people who were posh and well-off.

Growing up in Lewisham, south London, the daughter of two Vietnamese boat people who were unemployed, meant her expectations were circumscribed by lack of knowledge, lack of money and timidity. But that was before she met her mentor, Deborah Kelly, 32, a Cambridge graduate who works in corporate communications at SBC Warburg, one of the most powerful investment banks in the world.

"She has made me more aware," says Sheuneen, a confident and smiling 16-year-old at Deptford Green, the local comprehensive school. "She has encouraged me to do A-levels." The hope is that Sheuneen will go into higher education.

The signs are that the contact between pupil and mentor in inner-city areas such as Deptford, nurtured through regular meetings, is actually producing better results - improved grades, better attendance and a new attitude.

Mentoring - an idea that came from America - is based on the notion that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds need role models other than the ones in their schools and neighbourhoods. They need to form relationships with individuals who are in employment, who know how to work the system and who can tell them how to make something of themselves.

Deptford Green's deputy head, Des Malone, says that young people will listen to the mentors where they won't listen to their teachers. That is because the mentors are out in the world, and in the workplace. "The kids believe what they say," he explains.

Thus when their mentor talks to them about the importance of attitude, qualifications and how they present themselves, they will listen. The 70 young people being mentored at Deptford Green love to take the train to the City and visit their mentors at the sleek buildings of SBC Warburg, says Mr Malone.

According to the school's head, Keith Ajegbo, mentoring has worked better than any other scheme linking pupils with the world of work. "We think it's making a difference," he says. "We think pupils who are mentored do better in exams than pupils who aren't."

American experience bears this out. Although mentoring does not work in all cases, usually because of personality clashes between the mentor and the mentored, evidence suggests that where it does, it works well. Mentoring is highly developed in the United States, used in big cities all over the continent to persuade young people, especially young blacks, to stay in school, to keep off drugs, do their homework and raise their sights.

In Britain, mentoring of this type is in its infancy. The SBC Warburg/Deptford Green partnership is one of around 16 in the initiative called "Roots and Wings" set up by Business In the Community, the organisation of businesses with a social conscience. Other schemes operate in Bristol, Stoke and Manchester, and a total of 500 pairs (mentors and mentored) are seeing one another regularly. Companies involved include BT Personal Communications, Wimpey Construction, Citibank and the Financial Times.

What do mentors get out of it? According to Linda Sowerby, seconded from SBC Warburg to run the project, the mentors improve their abilities to work as a team, and support and nurture staff. "The skills that employees gain through mentoring are skills that are transferable back to the company," she says.

"In some instances it's very challenging for a mentor. If they have a student who is only saying a few words, they really have to work their skills."

For the mentors themselves, it is a chance to help others with fewer advantages. "It is an opportunity to show what can be done," says Vincent Dolan, 39, who works on the bond trading floor and mentors 14-year-old Lekan Popoola. "I want to show that people in the bank and anywhere else are just ordinary people." A graduate of the University of Kent, Mr Dolan was the first member of his family to have a higher education.

Deborah Kelly agrees. She may be a suave corporate executive with a degree from Cambridge University but she is passionate about giving Sheuneen what she can. "I went to a comprehensive," she says. "I was very, very lucky in having a head of sixth-form with Oxbridge contacts. I feel very strongly that everyone should have that access."

Mentoring is a humbling experience, she says. So much of the time in the City is spent worrying that other people are earning more, getting a bigger bonus, driving a smarter car. "Coming face to face with a girl whose parents don't work, who has never travelled abroad and who is still incredibly optimistic, ambitious and positive about her life provides a salutary lesson."

Deptford Green, which has 783 pupils, is based in one of the poorest parts or London. Examination passes have been on the rise and more and more parents have been putting the school as their first choice. But the school was finding it impossible to shift pupils' expectations - to persuade them to think in terms of higher education or a job outside the immediate area.

Hence mentoring. The school, which has been running the mentoring scheme as a pilot for two years, was overwhelmed with pupils wanting to be mentored and had to turn away two-thirds of those who applied - something that has caused some tension between the chosen and the rejected.

Mr Malone sought to maintain a good racial and gender mix, and chose youngsters he thought would benefit most. Pupils with poor school attendance records and behavioural problems were not picked. Pupils who lacked confidence, organisational skills or had low expectations of themselves were.

Pupils say one of the best things about mentoring is being able to go to mentors with their problems, whether personal or studies-related. Tracy Carter, 14, had been persuaded to work harder. "My work has been better. My mentor sort of convinced me to get better grades and do more work."

Mentoring has to be monitored and planned to work as well as this scheme does, says Mr Malone. The school learnt its lesson from a small pilot mentoring project with IPC magazines in which around half the youngsters dropped out. That scheme was not run tightly enough to preclude pupils arriving late for meetings to find their mentors no longer there, or not turning up for meetings at all.

The scheme with SBC Warburg is highly organised. Staff check that youngsters are turning up on time to meet their mentors and that the relationships are working. With the best will in the world, not all relationships do work. In those cases, the partnerships are ended but this has happened in only a handful of cases.

Mr Malone is open about the worries he had before the scheme began. "I had all the qualms that an inner-city teacher would have about getting involved with a big, money-oriented, City organisation," he says. "I had questions about their reasons for wanting to do this."

He feared the company might opt in and out of the scheme, and leave the pupils high and dry. He worried about the huge gap in ethnic, social and educational backgrounds between the mentors and the mentored. But he need not have worried, because what he has seen is a blossoming in mutual understanding and respect between a group of London's least and most advantaged young people.