Mentoring has become one of the government’s flagship solutions for helping disaffected young people.
In his Respect action plan published last month, Tony Blair pledged to establish pilot peer-mentoring schemes in 180 secondary schools for 3,600 youngsters, and a further pilot of a mentoring scheme for 600 looked-after children aged 10-15.
The government also promised £4 million to develop a mentoring and befriending programme, and a further £1 million to expand sports and creative sector mentoring.
While the government is insistent that mentoring is the way forward, this week saw the publication of a critical report on 80 mentoring projects in England and Wales raising doubts about their effectiveness.
Evidence based policy?
The report by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education commissioned by the Youth Justice Board does not support the expansion of mentoring schemes as a way of preventing or tackling youth crime.
The report on 80 YJB-backed schemes between 2001-2004 finds that mentoring is “substantially” more expensive than alternatives providing similar benefits, such as the YJB’s education and employment schemes.
Many young people referred to the schemes refused to take part or engage with their mentors, while many volunteers failed to become mentors, the report finds.
It identifies young people’s unwillingness as the “single most important barrier” to their participation.
Out of nearly 5,000 young people referred to mentoring schemes, less than half received mentoring, raising concerns about cost-effectiveness, according to the report.
It also questions whether mentoring leads to improvements in behaviour, literacy and numeracy. It also finds no clear evidence that mentoring produces a reduction in offending.
The report raises doubts over whether the schemes are “substantial enough” to make a lasting difference to young people, noting that the average scheme involved around 20 hours of contact.
“It would be suprising if the result [of the schemes] did ‘immunise’ these young people permanently against the difficulties they face,” the report says.
Difficult to measure
Bob Ashford, head of prevention at the Youth Justice Board, says that while “lessons can be learned” from the report, the YJB will continue to back the expansion of mentoring.
But he admits that mentoring alone is unlikely to reverse the risk of offending on young people, and must be used alongside other interventions to increase the chances of success.
Peter Collins, chief executive of the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation, the national strategic body for mentoring and befriending, agrees.
“Mentoring is effective where it contributes to an overall support strategy. This is backed up by other research which suggests that mentoring has been extremely successful in re-engaging disaffected young people particularly in terms of school, community and family life,” he says.
Ashford also points to the difficulty of measuring results of the schemes over a short-term period.
While the report found that around half of mentoring programmes ended earlier than planned, a third of young people entered or re-entered education or training – a result that Ashford describes as positive.
“We are dealing with some of the most alienated and difficult to engage young people, and it is wholly unrealistic to expect they can be turned around in a short time,” he said.
Jenny Hoyle, programme manager at Wandsworth junior youth inclusion programme in south London run by Crime Concern, argues that while mentoring is “extremely useful,” it is hard to measure the outcomes.
The Wandsworth programme, which has been running since 2003, mentors around 40 children aged 8-12 at any one time. The children have school attendance problems, low attainment and behavioural problems.
“So much of the work is about starting to build trust and engaging the young person. While there are targets, such as education, it can be hard to measure the tangible long-term impact. The results are more about the distance a young person might travel in their personal journey,” Hoyle says.
Chris Chaston, policy officer at young people’s charity Rainer, which has been running mentoring schemes in many of its 60 projects for the past decade, says mentoring provides young people with a vital adult role model that is likely to be missing from their lives.
“Building a relationship with the young person has to happen first before any specific work can be done. Mentors should not be asked to reduce reoffending in the first instance, but to find out what is important in the young person’s life.”
He adds that the results of mentoring must be looked over around two to five years to assess input and effectiveness.
The report accuses agencies of creating mentoring programmes “designed by well-meaning adults for young people who do not see their value,” and points to the need to consult young people.
It also criticises the reluctance of agencies to promote mentoring. “Authorities are understandably anxious to avoid the implication that offending is being rewarded, but failing to take account of the wishes of young adults society has not chosen to take into custody is equally short-sighted,” the report argues.
Hoyle is critical of “off-putting” publicity for mentoring schemes which can be seen as “patronising” by young people.
“The underlying message to the young person is ‘you are needy, but another person has more to offer than you,’” she says. “It is down to the skill of youth workers and other agencies to show young people what the real benefits of mentoring can be.”
Money well spent?
Collins of the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation, an organisation that Tony Blair has earmarked as the focus of the government’s £4 million investment in mentoring, is confident that money spent on schemes is worthwhile.
“Whilst we cannot comment on the specific costs associated with Youth Justice Board schemes, our own research confirms that mentoring is an extremely cost effective support for a wide range of people in the community,” he says.
While the report points out that most mentoring schemes cost “several times more” than the YJB’s education and employment schemes costing around £2,300, Chaston says that schemes can be run for under £1,000 a year.
Chaston believes the schemes have “real value” when good practice is put in place to make them work.
The report recommends ways of improving mentoring schemes including targeting younger age groups and better co-ordination of services working with young people, particularly expert services such as healthcare. It also suggests developing professional intervention based on the role of the “social pedagogue” that has become common in several European countries, combining the provision of care and education.
“Key to good practice is making sure mentoring is not a standalone, short-term intervention,” Chaston says. “In order to deliver the service effectively, quality mentors must be recruited and put through rigorous training before matching them with an appropriate mentee. The right match is vital to the success of the scheme.”
Hoyle adds: “If some of the most excluded young people learn to engage, build relationships and realise their potential, it is worth spending whatever money it takes as it will greatly benefit society in the long-term.”
National evaluation of mentoring schemes 2001-2004 by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London at: www.yjb.gov.uk/publications