Schools budget crisis hangs over the future of mentors

Over the past few weeks, teachers and school support staff have
been working under a cloud, writes Kendra Inman. Redundancy
notices, rarely a factor in today’s public services, have
been flying around as schools, in the midst of a budget crisis,
have been forced to let staff go.

Although the extent of the cuts is unclear, education lobbyists
and unions predict that the job losses and cuts in hours will be
extended to non-teaching staff who help disaffected youngsters in

Among those under threat are learning mentors, the new breed of
education worker charged with breaking down the barriers to
learning that many young people face.

There are fears that as purse strings tighten, learning mentors
will be seen as a luxury that schools can no longer afford. Any
reduction in their hours or numbers would be a great loss, says
education consultant Anne Hayward.

She says that although they have only been in schools for four
years, “schools think they are an invaluable asset and no school
I’ve visited would want to lose them.”

So where do learning mentors come from and why should everyone
who works with young people know about them? Mentors were
introduced into schools as part of the government’s
Excellence in Cities (EiC) initiative in 1999.

Along with the development of learning support units, mentors
were charged with assessing, identifying and working with those
pupils who need help to overcome barriers to learning, both inside
and outside the school.

Using tried and tested multi-agency working methods, the mentors
are expected to help raise standards and cut truancy and exclusions
in selected areas such as London, Liverpool and Sheffield.

Councils were given extra cash – most recently more than
£350m for 2003-4 – to fund EiC and the employment of learning
mentors in secondary and primary schools.

Anne Hayward has been a prime mover behind establishing learning
mentors. She wrote the Department for Education and Skills’
best practice guidance and helps schools implement it.

Learning mentors come from all walks of life, with many having
had experience in youth work. Frequently they come from the
children’s own communities – a bonus when it comes to working
with families – and are able to use their skills to run a range of
extra activities.

It was originally envisaged that the learning mentor’s
role would be to allow the teachers to teach but their work has
evolved. It is targeted and very different to that of classroom
assistants, says Hayward.

“They develop action plans, set targets for children, and review
those targets. They co-ordinate agencies and forge links with
families,” she says.

Most importantly they are key players in the multi-agency
approach to tackling exclusion, says Hayward.

But their job isn’t just to deal with challenging
behaviour. They are ideally placed to uncover other less obvious
problems too, she says.

In one school an investigation by learning mentors into
punctuality and attendance uncovered much deeper problems. A group
of girls who were frequently absent or late turned out to be young

“Their lateness was caused by them having to get brothers or
sisters and other family members up and ready in the morning,” says

Once the problem was identified the mentors could work with the
children, their families and other agencies on finding a

“Learning mentors are successful because they are not teachers
and not social workers. They are seen as independent by the young
people and someone who will listen to them. It is an opportunity
for children to have that level of support that can increase their
self-esteem and is neither tied to a teacher nor an education
welfare officer,” she says.

Although the Excellence in Cities initiative itself has had
mixed reviews, the learning mentors are seen as a success. In an
appraisal of the EiC initiative published in May this year,
education watchdog Ofsted said, learning mentors, “enabled the
majority of schools to enhance the quality of the support they
offer to disaffected, under achieving or vulnerable pupils”.

Hayward says even schools that do not have the
government’s extra funding are taking on mentors because they
are seen as helping individual attainment, attendance and
punctuality and even prevent school exclusions.

The DfES has already earmarked the cash for learning mentors for
2003-4 (although there is nothing to stop them spending it
elsewhere) but an announcement has yet to be made about how
they’ll be funded in the future. Staff working with children
whose life chances depend to some extent on them staying in school
hope that learning mentors are here to stay.

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