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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 01:16 GMT
How mentors make a difference
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan
When you think of what a secondary school should be providing for pupils you might not think of a good wash and an alarm call in the morning.
This could be anything from family breakdowns to behavioural disorders to bullying - and the intention is that by letting learning mentors help with such external problems, teachers can get on with teaching.
Rakin Fetuga is a learning mentor at South Camden Community School in north London and as an example of his case-load he says that at the moment he is trying to help a pupil who has had a terrible attendance record.
As a practical way of getting the pupil out of bed, Mr Fetuga rings his home in the morning then meets him during the day to try to motivate him to make greater efforts with his lessons.
Another learning mentor at the school has had to take a pupil home for a wash because he was not smelling too sweetly.
It is not exactly an education problem, but the alternative would have been to allow the boy to be bullied or teased and to run the risk of further disruption.
Learning mentors are funded by the Excellence in Cities urban regeneration programme - and the scheme's manager in the school, Chris Gibson, says mentors step in where usually a parent might be expected to help.
"It can be a real eye-opener. Social deprivation is here and now, only a few metres from the school and side by side with very expensive housing," said Mr Gibson.
He says recently a pupil had started missing school. When learning mentors investigated they found that the pupil was sharing a one-bedroom flat with his mother and they were taking it in turns to sleep in the bed.
As well as entering territory more usually associated with social workers or housing officers, learning mentors spend much of their time trying to gain the trust of pupils who might have become disaffected and disruptive.
But what kind of an impact can they really make?
At South Camden Community School, where there are two full-time and 11 volunteer mentors, the first evidence of an improvement has been a 30% year on year fall in exclusions.
Improvements in exam results could take many years to feed into the system, says Mr Gibson. But the learning mentor system has been designed to address those pupils who are underachieving.
Using a points score based on test results, the school identifies every individual pupil who is falling behind then seeks to find out what support learning mentors can provide.
Excellence in Cities also puts a particular emphasis on helping gifted pupils, with extra lessons and advice for the top 5% to 10% of students.
"Inner-city education has been obsessed with the special needs of the least able and weakest pupils," says Chris Gibson.
"The attitude has been that the more able can look after themselves, which has meant that they have not achieved as much as they should have done."
As well as helping to develop the academic potential of these gifted youngsters, it is also hoped that paying more attention to the most able will stop some of them getting bored and getting into trouble inside and outside of school.
In his role as learning mentor, Rakin Fetuga also advises young people on the ways in which they can progress through GCSEs and A-levels and on to university.
Without any adults at home able to help them negotiate their way through the education system, the pupils are helped by their mentors to "find the path" forwards.
Excellence in Cities is by no means the first initiative to attempt to tackle the longstanding underachievement of inner-city education - and Chris Gibson is under no illusion about the scale of the task.
"As long as the sun shines, there will be social exclusion - but that's not to say you don't do anything about it.
"We can be a little cog in a big wheel that's beginning to make a difference."
'Pragmatic and practical'
And he believes that Excellence in Cities is proving popular with schools because it can be adapted to local needs, rather than being imposed from above.
Head teacher Huw Salisbury also approves of the scheme, which brings support worth an extra £100,000 a year, as "pragmatic and practical".
Although he says that teachers in the inner cities have always worked above and beyond the call of duty, the provision of learning mentors provides another option for hard-pressed staff.
And he warns against anyone seeking "quick fixes" for complex problems - and as an example says that absenteeism rates are likely to be higher in a school such as his where so many pupils are from asylum-seeker families.
But he does welcome what seems to be the arrival of the long promised bigger budgets, as the extra money from government begins to make a difference.
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