Calming influence

“Some kids get into a mood, and they can be hard to deal with,”
says Pavneet Mann, aged 18.

“Yeah, they give you the silent treatment,” agrees Samantha Butler,
17. “Then it can be really hard to get through to them. You’ve got
to always focus on what’s positive and not pay attention to the
negative. And you have to keep them constantly active and doing

“But it has been fantastic experience, really,” adds Dawn Brookes,
18. “We’ve learned as much as they have.”

The long summer holidays can bring out the worst in young people if
boredom takes hold. But Walsall’s Summer Reloaded offers
interesting and has older teenagers acting as positive role models,
supporters and advocates for younger children.

The programme is much the same as many other “splash” schemes –
activities include visits, workshops and sports events – to keep
children occupied and off the streets during the summer break where
they are at risk of offending. But this year, for the first time,
Walsall has added another dimension – that of trained mentors
working alongside children from deprived or difficult

The mentoring programme has been imported from a similar set up in
Liverpool last year, where Walsall Council’s chief executive Annie
Shepherd’s previously worked. The Walsall programme recruited 89
mentors (aged 17-19) from local sixth form colleges, gave them
intensive training in mentoring techniques, and gave each of them
up to four charges aged eight to 14 for the entire break. Many are
known to social services, some are in the care system, others may
have been excluded from school or be at risk of exclusion.

Mentors spend up to 30 hours a week with their charges in various
activities, supporting and encouraging them, working with them on
their literacy, and acting – crucially – as positive role models
and “ambassadors for education”.

Mentors are positive about the experience, seeing it as financially
and personally rewarding. Most are studying for their A-levels and
they welcome earning £5.50 an hour. But they have also gained
satisfaction and experience. Some, such as Fiona Dwyer, want to
work with children and see mentoring as good CV material. Others,
such as Pavneet Mann who is about to become a law student, value
the experience and confidence they gain through the training and
the mentoring process.

Seeing their charges gain confidence and improve academically has
also been rewarding – some have learned to swim, others have
improved their reading, sung and acted on stage, and lost their
shyness. Mann says: “It’s been quite challenging at times, but you
get a great sense of satisfaction when you see your kid behaving
better, making friends and becoming more confident.”

Project co-ordinator Lorraine Randell says the training and
continuing support the mentors receive has been crucial to the
project’s success. After the 89 mentors had been interviewed by the
project and checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, they were sent
for three days’ intensive mentoring training.

The training covered child protection, professional boundaries and
personal safety as well as how to engage with children and young
people in a way that highlights their strengths and resources, and
helps them break negative patterns of behaviour. Training provider
Eileen Murphy says: “We covered respect and courtesy, the
importance of body language and how to help raise children’s
confidence levels and self-esteem.

“It was the same training that we would have given a group of
professionals. The young people responded to that and behaved
professionally at all times. A lot of them saw it as part of their
own personal development.

“Part of that professionalism is that if they don’t get on with a
particular child, or they don’t like the sort of activities that
the kid likes, they have to stick it out. In some ways it’s a
‘welcome to the real world’ for them, and I admire them for the way
they’ve taken that on.”

After the initial training, mentors have been supported over the
summer by weekly group supervision meetings. The meetings last a
couple of hours or so, and any issues or questions can be aired and
dealt with. Another crucial part of the mentors’ support system is
a network of troubleshooters – usually youth workers – who are
available at the end of a mobile phone in case assistance or advice
is needed.

An interesting adjunct to the scheme is that the parents of the
children who are being mentored can attend parenting classes in the

This summer’s scheme has cost just under £500,000 and was
funded by the local strategic partnership. Randell acknowledges
that the training for mentors was a costly component, but says: “It
has been the vital ingredient in the whole thing.”

Tom Mclean, 18, is mentoring Khalid, eight. Tom agrees the training
was excellent. “Some of it was totally new, and some of it was
common sense but pointed out to you in a way that you didn’t
realise before. I’ve learned a lot from the mentoring. It’s a lot
better than working in a bar or an office for the summer

Khalid agrees: “He’s the best,” he says, smiling shyly at Tom.
Praise indeed.

Pointers for success

Want to follow Walsall’s example? Here are Summer Reloaded’s
tips for success. 

  • Time: Summer Reloaded was set up in just two
    months. The organisers worked hard and were lucky with timescales,
    but advise anyone else not to underestimate how long recruitment,
    training and pairing can take. 
  • Information: The scheme received more than 250
    referrals from various agencies. Most of these were appropriate but
    it is important that social workers and other professionals
    understand that the initiative is intended to support children, not
    to give their parents a break. 
  • Staffing: Walsall’s scheme was set up and
    co-ordinated by one person, but it is really a job for a team. Next
    year there will be two co-ordinators. 
  • Troubleshooting: This needs to be an integral
    part of the scheme and preferably is a full-time job, rather than
    an add-on to another role. 
  • Target young men as mentors: Of 124 young
    people who applied to become mentors, only 18 were young men. Yet
    about three-quarters of the children the mentors worked with this
    year were boys. As part of its fine-tuning of the scheme for next
    year, Walsall will be trying to attract more male applicants,
    including mentors from ethnic minorities. 
  • Year-round schemes: Walsall is considering
    extending the scheme to other school holidays.

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