A pioneering mentoring scheme in London's East End is turning around the lives of troubled children

Lennox had been excluded from school. Dyllan was disruptive. Ashley was 'all over the place'. But help was at hand. Peter Stanford reports on a pioneering mentoring scheme in London's East End, and talks to five once troubled children who've had their lives turned round thanks to the presence of a special adult. Portraits by Gemma Day
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The Independent Online

The Hackney Museum provides an oddly appropriate backdrop to an unusual graduation ceremony. High-achieving and rather sombre-looking figures from the Victorian heyday of this once prosperous but now deprived borough in east London gaze out benignly from the portraits on the walls. The room is filled with a lively crowd of current-day residents, divided roughly equally between five- to 11-year-olds and adults. The grown-ups present are both proud parents and volunteers who have mentored the youngsters for the past 12 months. For the kids, all in their best clothes and slightly over-excited, it is probably the first time in their lives that they have been told they are a success.

The event, presided over by the local council's deputy speaker, has been organised by the award-winning charity Chance UK. Set up 11 years ago by an Islington policeman, Russ Horne, it puts together mentors and children from troubled backgrounds who are judged at risk of drifting into criminal behaviour as they approach their teens. By early intervention, it aims to encourage them to keep on the straight and narrow.

After an intensive training programme, spread out over three consecutive weekends, the mentors, many of them 25- to 35-year-old career professionals without children of their own, commit to spending a few hours each week for one year with a child. The results of offering such one-to-one attention have been impressive - so much so that tonight Chance UK is joining forces with Britain's biggest children's charity, NCH, to announce an expansion in its activities, hitherto confined to the London boroughs of Islington and Hackney, to include Crawley, Liverpool, Inverness and Derry.

One of Chance UK's most ardent admirers is Gordon Brown. He has hosted a Christmas party for the children the charity works with at 11 Downing Street where his own young son, John, played with the guests. "That meant a lot," says Chance UK's chief executive, Gracia McGrath, "because most of our children are used to neighbours telling their children not to play with them. By including his own son, they felt that Gordon Brown was showing them respect."

The graduation ceremony marks the end of 12 months of mentoring for the latest 10 children to go through a Chance UK programme, which has so far helped more than 600 youngsters. A couple of sentences of commendation are read out about both the child and the mentor before they come up to the front to be awarded certificates and to smile for the cameras.

It is simple, informal and profoundly moving. In a society that seems increasingly to write off children as beyond redemption at an ever-earlier age - a court recently imposed an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) on a 10-year-old from Bristol - this homespun celebration offers a gentle nudge in the other direction. Lives can be turned around by providing a little of what most children take for granted.

It's not a complicated idea, but studies carried out for Chance UK show that on the measurements of the Goodman Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) - a system widely used to identify behavioural problems in three- to 16-year-olds - almost 90 per cent of Chance UK's children show an improvement after 12 months of mentoring, and 45 per cent do so well that they are given a clean bill of health.

Contrast this with the sorry tale told by official figures about the 2,500 15- to 17-year-olds currently in custody, and the case for such early intervention is irrefutable. Half have a history of being in care or monitored by social services while remaining at home. Some 45 per cent have been excluded from school. Two-fifths of the boys and a quarter of the girls have experienced violence at home. After such a start in life, their brush with the criminal-justice system rarely produces beneficial effects. More than 80 per cent come out to re-offend again soon afterwards.

Chance UK's approach, McGrath acknowledges, will not be enough on its own to change this situation. But by seeking to replace with the positive input of a mentor the often negative influence of older children on neglected and malleable five- to -11 year-olds, it does offer one solution. "At this age, pre-puberty, they are not so set in their ways," she says. " They are more open than they will be when they are teenagers to what can be a transforming relationship. A lot of the kids we help have problems, for instance, in making friends. Building a good relationship with an adult who has time for them often leads them on to building good relationships with their peers. And it shows them that it is possible to get attention by positive behaviour. It's not rocket science."

Lennox, 10, lives with his mother and three older sisters Michael, 53, runs his own business. He is married with a grown-up son by his first marriage and three stepsons by his second

Lennox I got on well with Michael straightaway. We went to lots of places together and tried lots of new things: the pantomime, the Science Museum, the Lord Mayor's Show, HMS Belfast and ice-skating. I fell over more times than Michael did.

He's just good fun. We didn't always do exciting things. We went out on our bikes to the park. Before I met Michael I used to keep crashing into the wall on my bike. He showed me how to do it. I could ride a little bit, but I needed more help.

It was nice having a grown-up who I didn't have to share with my sisters. I could talk to Michael about things. He'd give me good advice. Like not to fight. I really don't know why I had got into fights at school. They just didn't like me there. It got me into trouble with my teachers and they would write to my mum. She says I'm happier now.

Michael My wife saw the advert for mentors and sent me along to keep me out of trouble. I was divorced when my son was two and I only used to see him on Saturdays. He's grown-up now. I didn't have any more children of my own.

Lennox had just been excluded from school when I met him. He had trouble containing his temper when things didn't go the way he wanted. I think just having someone to talk to helped him. Especially a man. I didn't ask him questions. If he wanted to tell me something, he would.

He also liked having someone to do things with. Simple things. He was nervous of going down slopes on his bike. Doing it with me gave him confidence. He feels more grounded now and more relaxed. He's learnt to compromise more. The best moment for me was when he invited me to his birthday party. I knew then that Lennox had accepted me as a friend.

Chloe, 10, lives with her mother and has an older brother and five older step-sisters Farrah, 28, is a journalist

Chloe When I first met Farrah, I said to my mum, "Isn't she beautiful?" That was what I first thought about her. And I liked her clothes. When we met we'd do things like going swimming together. I've been with the school and my mum had taken me, but she never likes to get into the swimming pool. Farrah does. And we do cooking together. We made biscuits and cakes - even a Mother's Day cake for my mum. She was in the front room when we did it, so it was a surprise.

I think I'm different now from when I first met Farrah. There were things that I wasn't happy about before. That's why I was stealing from school and stuff. Now I've seen Farrah I feel better. I could talk to her about things that worried me. She's good at listening and good at solving problems. She'd suggest ways I could do things differently with my mum. When I tried that, it would work. It's better now at home. I try and help more. I don't start being bad.

Farrah I was attracted to mentoring because I thought it was probably the last chance I would have to do something like this. I'd been working very hard at my job and so something outside work seemed a good idea. Mentoring requires you to make time and be committed for a whole year. And I am thinking I'll have probably have my own kids one day so, if they come along, I just won't have the time.

Chloe was much happier when we first met than I thought she was going to be. Almost the first thing she said to me was that she liked the gold ballet pumps I had on. Once we discovered we were both shoe-a-holics, we bonded. She's had to cope with unpleasant situations at home, but I was able to be an outlet for her to talk about her frustrations and fears.

We had a budget each month of £30, so we couldn't always be going out. We'd do the cheap things - like reading a book together. Chloe has started going to the library on her own. What gives me most pleasure at the end of our year together is the sight of Chloe today with a slightly battered book peeping out of her satchel. (omega)

Junicia, 10, lives with her large family in Hackney Sophia, 32, is a media director in advertising

Junicia Sophia is kind and lovely and precious. But she's also very strict if I did something wrong. She wouldn't let me be bad. We'd talk about why I got angry. And she said that if I felt it was going to happen I had to stop and count to 10 and then it would stop. And she was right. I tried it at school and at home.

Sophia Sometimes the time commitment of being a mentor was tough, especially as I got married this year, but I loved it. Kids like Junicia have been told too often that they are annoying or useless or a problem. What they need is the confidence that comes with hearing positive things.

Junicia comes from a big, diverse family and there had been problems at home and at school where she had been difficult and disruptive. She was struggling with reading and homework but one-to-one attention from me helped her make great progress. She's now reading Tracy Beaker on her own. And we'd go on the web so that I could show her there was a whole big world of opportunities out there. Her mother's from Monserrat and I'm half-Arabic and half German, and have worked in Spain, so we'd look up all these places and widen her horizons.

I tried to be very practical with her. So I gradually allowed her to manage our budget of £30 for trips each month. When it was gone, it was gone. There was no more. It taught her that actions have consequences. And when she could do it, it gave her confidence which then translates into helping her make friendships at school and see herself as someone worthwhile.

Dyllan, nine, lives with mother and two younger siblings. Lewis, 25, is a personal trainer

Dyllan When we started meeting, Lewis was the one telling me what were the right things to eat. No fizzy drinks and no sweets. He's very healthy. After we'd been to football or boxing training, he'd sometimes take me to a restaurant. And once he tried to order chips. I had to tell him: that's not healthy. I support Arsenal and Lewis took me to see them play. And when we went on the London Eye, I could see the Arsenal ground. It was brilliant.

Lewis I'd noticed that in my local community there were young kids just messing around, getting into trouble because they didn't have enough to do. Me and some mates had been talking about it and what we could do to help, and that was when I saw the Chance UK poster. Dyllan's behaviour at first was very disruptive. He wouldn't listen. I had to set rules. It took about three months before he stopped breaking them all the time and having temper tantrums, but after that he got better and better. He likes sport but his mum is on her own with two younger children and it is hard for her to take him to do it. I think me being a man was a big part of it for Dyllan.

He's not a great talker. I knew he'd been excluded from mainstream school, and there were times when I'd get to his house and could see he was upset about something, but he'd never talk about it directly and I didn't push him. He's not a very interactive boy, but by doing team sports like football with him I hope he has begun to learn how to make friends with other boys. s

Ashley, nine, lives with his severely disabled mother and elderly grandfather Gwyneth, 41, is a museum curator

Ashley Gwyneth is funny. She tells jokes. She goes like: "What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo? Big holes in Australia." And she likes exploring. We explored lots of new places. And things. Like tennis at Hackney Marshes. It was the first time I'd played.

Before I met Gwyneth, I'd found it hard to make friends at school. She helped me to understand how to do it. She showed me how to be more polite, more good and more kind, like her. She taught me how to cross a road safely. She's my special friend. She feels like my social worker - in a good way.

Gwyneth I like children but don't have any of my own, so mentoring seemed like a good idea. I was quite overwhelmed the first time I met Ashley and wasn't sure how things were going to work out. He was a bit all over the place. He was experiencing emotions that he didn't quite know what to do with. To begin with he'd always get very upset as our session drew to a close, but he didn't know how to articulate it. So he'd hit me - not hard, but harder than a friendly hit. He didn't know what channels to use to say he was sad.

Gradually he got used to it and became calmer and concentrated more. Initially I was terrified with him near roads because I didn't know if he would stop when he got to the kerb. Again, we talked and reached an agreement on what was and wasn't acceptable behaviour when we went out.

Over the year I hope he has become more open and more accepting of boundaries. For one of our last sessions Ashley took control. He chose the bus and planned the journey. We were on the bus heading for Victoria Park and I asked him if we were nearly there.

"Stop whining," he told me. It made me laugh.

You can contact Chance UK at www.chanceuk.com