Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Thursday, 14 July 2005 10:25 UK

Mentoring 'helped me like myself'

By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

Catherine Millan and James Reed
Catherine and James feel they have learned valuable skills

Sixth-former Catherine Millan says she has turned her life around - and is now doing the same for younger children.

"I was getting mixed up with the wrong things - drinking, smoking and abusive behaviour.

"At one point the school had to send taxis to make sure I got to school."

From a point where she had given up on everything, she now intends to go to university, get involved in politics and has ambitions to be the first black female prime minister.

After hearing a presentation at her school by youth charity Weston Spirit, she decided to train to become a mentor to younger, vulnerable pupils.

At a time when the government wants to tackle a lack of respect in society and in schools, Catherine was undoubtedly the kind of young person who needed to be reached.

'Culture of support'

Tony Lloyd, head of sixth form at Catherine's school, Plessington High in Wirral, has overseen its development of peer mentoring and says participation has grown rapidly.

"We have trained around 150 sixth formers with Weston Spirit, and younger pupils are becoming involved in a less formal way."

He said peer mentoring was initially aimed at pupils at risk of bullying, but had grown into a pupil support service, with mentors working alongside teachers as well as creating their own individual projects on exclusion and racism.

Relationships between pupils and staff had benefited greatly, he said.

"We've created a culture where older students support younger students and parents can see that."

Mentors are asked to contribute at least two hours per week to mentoring, though many devote more time, he added.

Simon Weston
I lost interest at school - and I remember what it was like to be threatened and bullied
Simon Weston
Weston Spirit was set up by Falklands War veteran Simon Weston and provides programmes for young people at risk of social exclusion.

The charity works with mobile phone company O2, which provides employees to train sixth formers who wish to become mentors to younger pupils.

The company has extended its partnership with Weston Spirit for the next three years after the success of a pilot project in seven schools, including Plessington High.

Through their business mentors the sixth formers gain an insight into the workings of a blue-chip company, as well as learning leadership and social skills, which Tony Lloyd feels will be valuable in the long term.

And 02 employees who become mentors to sixth-formers say communicating their experiences to young people is valuable on a personal and professional level.

Traumatic place

Speaking eloquently about her experiences, Catherine seems to resent the media portrayal of "disaffected youth."

Young people do care, she says, but need support and a means by which they can express it.

Simon Weston agrees.

"Sometimes young people wonder if they do care about anything, but once they are given trust and some responsibility, they can prove their worth," he said.

His own experiences of being intimidated at school had given him a passion for helping young people make the most of their chance.

"I lost interest at school - and I remember what it was like to be threatened and bullied.

"It can be an intimidating and traumatic place. If you're having problems, you need someone to turn to near your own age, who you can relate better to."

He hopes to spread the idea of peer mentoring to as many areas and schools as possible.

The aim is to increase pupils' engagement with school in their first two years of secondary school.

"Then children will have something to lose - the chance of a good education."

Tony Lloyd has noticed that increasing numbers of mentors are, like Catherine, expressing an interest in politics. They feel they have gained a voice and want to use it.

Grateful mother

Catherine feels her confidence has increased. "Over a period of time I learned to like and love myself again."

And James Reed, from Herschal Grammar school in Slough, said he found it rewarding to support young, Year 7 pupils to make the transition to secondary school.

He was mentor to a pupil with attention deficit disorder.

"He would get angry and heated - I learned ways to calm him down, and taught him to focus on things he liked."

As well as helping herself to regain motivation, Catherine said receiving a phone call from the grateful mother of her mentee was a high point.

"I helped him turn around his attitude by talking about lessons which weren't going well, and I helped him to see things from the teacher's point of view.

"Once he began to communicate better with the teacher he became a better pupil.

"He was a rebel, and disobedient - just like I was."

School pupils to get GCSE mentors
02 Feb 05 |  Hereford/Worcs
Anti-bully pupils win Diana award
14 Jan 05 |  Oxfordshire

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