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Liz Ervine, former headteacher of Springburn Academy in Glasgow, has been involved with the Intergenerational Mentoring Network since its beginnings. As a headteacher, she welcomed what the network could offer her senior school pupils and actively supported the activities of the network. In this article, Liz tells us about the impact of mentoring at Springburn Academy, how schools and headteachers can support the mentoring process, and what it is like being a mentor now that she has retired. She also gives her thoughts on what makes intergenerational mentoring different from other mentoring projects.

How do school pupils benefit from mentoring?

Liz explained that mentoring gives pupils an added dimension to their school life as S5 can be all about passing exams; mentoring provides a connection that takes pupils beyond the focus on exams. While mentors often help pupils with some tutoring and support with exam preparation, the focus for mentors is on helping pupils to negotiate the process of that stage of their educational experience by encouraging pupils to explore questions about whether they are doing the right Highers for the university course they are interested in, and if the course they are thinking about is right for them. These questions lead to conversations that raise awareness of what pupils have to do to get into university and what jobs or career options they may have afterwards. Mentors help pupils to explore what might be possible and to actively work towards making possibilities a reality. Above all, mentoring offers pupils a connection to someone who has experience and knowledge of negotiating the processes involved to enter the professions.

What have been the highlights?

As a headteacher, there have been many highlights since the mentoring project started operating in the school. One of the main highlights that comes to mind for Liz was the first pupil that got into medicine. Only a few years ago, the number of pupils who went to university was very low with only two pupils going to university in 2003.

Since then Springburn Academy has been actively working with various local projects to get more pupils through their Highers and into university. Liz said that it has been wonderful to see the gradual increase in the numbers of young people going into Higher Education, graduating, and doing well in their lives. The biggest overall highlight has been to see able, young people in Springburn succeeding and realising their potential as they develop themselves throughout S5, S6 and university.

A fond memory of Liz’s time as headteacher, was seeing young people with their mentors in the library on a Tuesday afternoon. She said it was great to see them so engaged and to feel the buzz of energy even after school when most other pupils had gone home. She could see that there was a real connection between the mentors and pupils.

What did pupils think about having a mentor?

Before mentoring began at Springburn, Liz wasn’t sure how pupils would respond to having a mentor. She was worried that the pupils would not want to be seen with a mentor in public areas of the school such as the library or mezzanine in case other pupils thought they had a mentor because there was something wrong with them but it wasn’t like that at all. Pupils saw those that had mentors and they wanted a mentor too. That amazed her. She thought there might have been some prejudice or an attitude towards working with older people but there wasn’t. The attitude of pupils seemed to be that a person who was interested in them was a good person.

Since mentoring began in the school, there have been many successful relationships with pupils going onto university, graduating, and often keeping in touch with their mentor throughout and beyond university. Liz recognises that the match between mentor and mentee is important and sometimes this doesn’t always work out. There are times when pupils genuinely forget or mentees are re-matched but the majority of matches work out. It’s a good learning experience for the young person to negotiate their relationship with their mentor.

Liz also mentioned that the parents of the pupils generally appreciate the support mentors offer to the children but they don’t usually get involved in the mentoring activities. Sometimes parents might come in to the school to meet the mentor and have a cup of tea but it really depends on the individuals involved.

How does a school work in partnership with the Intergenerational Mentoring Network?

When starting a mentoring project within a school, there are a few essential steps that need to be taken in order to set up mentors with mentees. The Intergenerational Network takes care of recruiting the mentors but the school needs to be part of the overall process. The support of the headteacher in overseeing the startup of mentoring activities is absolutely essential in helping things to run smoothly between the mentoring network staff, the volunteer mentors, the pupils, and the school’s staff.

What does a school need to do to support mentoring?

First of all, the headteacher may sit down with the deputy head teacher (DHT) of S5/S6 and the pastoral care teacher with a list of pupils that have shown a lot of potential and are likely to get five Highers. Once these pupils have been identified it is often worth checking that they are doing Higher Maths and English since they are often essential for the entrance requirements of many degree programmes.

The next step is for the DHT to check the interests of pupils and what career they might be interested in. This helps the Intergenerational Mentoring Network to match pupils, when possible, with a mentor who has a professional background in the pupil’s area of interest such as medicine, law, or architecture.

After the mentoring network has found a suitable match for pupils, a meeting is scheduled for the mentor to come into the school and meet the pupil. This is usually done outside of class time, often during a free period or just after school so as to not miss classes. It is important for schools to offer a place to meet. It should be somewhere suitable such as the library, a classroom, or mezzanine seating area. IMN makes sure that mentors are disclosed and the school gives a talk on child protection. Mentors have expressed that it is important for the office staff to know who they are and why they are in the school to make it straightforward when issuing visitor passes.

Liz mentioned that it is worthwhile to organise ‘tea and a bun’ with the mentors during term to maintain communication. This is often organised by IMN and facilitated by the school. It helps to gather the mentors, network staff, head teacher and deputy head teacher to share up-to-date information and provide support to make sure the pupils and mentors are getting the best mentoring experience possible. Liz emphasised that it is important to make mentors feel welcome within the school and to keep the lines of communication open to maintain a strong relationship. It is important for schools to be as supportive as they can and show how much they value what mentors contribute to the school and it’s pupils. If the relationship between the head teacher, the school and mentors is strong then it creates a feeling of community that may encourage mentors to keep working with the school even after their mentees have left school.

To summarise, here are the steps that need to be taken in order to support mentoring within a school:

  • Identify pupils who are doing 5 Highers in S5
  • Check pupil interest in courses and careers
  • Match mentors with pupils
  • Give child protection talk to mentors
  • Schedule first meeting
  • Maintain communication with mentors

From headteacher to mentor

Now that Liz has retired, she has become a mentor and has found the experience to be quite interesting. She has been mentoring at Knightswood Secondary School and establishing relationships with her mentee, the office staff, the librarian, and teachers. As a former headteacher, she understands the importance of establishing such relationships and keeping the line of contact open between everyone involved. Her usual routine is to first go to the school office where she always receives a warm welcome then collects her visitor’s badge before going to meet her mentee in the library.

Liz’s relationship with her mentee has developed over time as they have engaged in various mentoring activities. Liz likes to be really focussed in their activities and tries not to take up too much of the pupil’s time – sometimes thirty minutes is all that is needed.

At first, she focused on establishing the relationship with her mentee through tutoring activities. Liz found that supporting her mentee with his Higher English got him to focus more. In the end, he got an ‘A’ and he became more engaged in the mentoring relationship.

While Liz found English tutoring activities helpful in establishing a relationship, other mentors may choose different activities that draw on their own particular background and strengths when working with young people. The project encourages volunteers to do what works for them when establishing the relationship.

Liz is realistic and says that young people won’t always want to turn up unless they are really getting something out of the relationship and tutoring activities are a good way to get to know each other and build the trust that is needed for mentees to open up about their ambitions. According to Liz, “It’s about the relationship and trust is important.” With trust as a key contributing factor to mentoring, Liz has observed that it leads to the longevity of relationships.

Once the relationship had been established, it was easier to to delve into discussions about what her mentee really wanted to do at university. He had started off thinking about doing engineering but through their discussions Liz discovered that he was also interested in music and German. She said one of the most important parts of mentoring is to help young people explore their options – especially when you work out their true interests and their beliefs about what may or may not be possible.

After finding out more about her mentee’s interests, Liz organised various visits through her contacts to help find more information about courses and careers. They visited places such as the Engineering department at the University of Glasgow and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He had also expressed an interest in accountancy so Liz arranged for him to meet some people with experience in the field who provided some useful information. It was also useful to learn that he could change what he was studying after his first year at university if he decided to do something different.

As a mentor Liz has realised that her contacts are very important for getting up-to-date information and arranging visits. She said, “The connections are as important as your knowledge.” She realises that she doesn’t know everything about the courses and careers her mentee is interested in but often she will often know someone else who might know. This is where mentors can really help young people, because they are unlikely to have access to the vast and valuable contacts of a retired professional.

As a headteacher, Liz has seen many mentoring relationships grow beyond S5 and S6. She said that while some relationships do end when the pupil leaves high school, many relationships are ongoing throughout university and after graduation. While those mentors and mentees don’t necessarily meet up on a regular basis, mentors will send an email to check in and ask how they are doing and mentees will reach out when they need help. At university, mentees sometimes need support with arranging internships, balancing workloads, coping with barriers to employment, or just the knowledge or advice of an older, more experienced person. Liz acknowledges that being accepted to university and getting a degree is just the first part in enabling young people to access the professions.

Would you recommend mentoring to other secondary schools?

Liz explained that if you are a headteacher and you want more pupils to go into Higher Education then mentoring can support that goal. Liz describes mentoring as providing head teachers with a welcome addition to their repertoire when trying to encourage and motivate young people. She explained that many young people get five Highers but then don’t know what to do with those Highers especially if no one in their family has ever been to university. Mentors help pupils to negotiate the process of thinking about university, getting the right information, applying, and everything that needs to be thought about or done to get into competitive courses in Higher Education.

Interestingly, Liz has also noticed that having mentors in the school raises the game for everyone in a way. She said that it can raise the ethos of the school if there are people like the mentors coming in and taking an interest in the school. In Liz’s opinion, “It is about more than just the pupils being mentored.” There are various mentoring and support programmes that come into the school and pupils anticipate that someone is going to come in and support them with working towards their future plans.

Would you recommend Intergenerational Mentoring?

Liz said that she would definitely recommend intergenerational mentoring and there are two main aspects of this particular kind of mentoring that make it special.

First of all, intergenerational mentoring is mostly provided by retired professionals who bring a whole range of knowledge and experience that a mentor in their twenties just wouldn’t have (they bring something else but they don’t have the same level of experience in their field). “The intergenerational factor is key. I think intergenerational mentoring brings an awful lot of things that you can’t buy.” For example, you can’t buy someone having a lifetime of contacts in specific fields and connecting mentees to them. As a whole, the mentors from the network bring a range of knowledge into the school which no one person could really have.

Another reason Liz would recommend Intergenerational Mentoring is that the focus is always on individual pupils. Other support programmes often group pupils together and don’t always have the capacity to give consistent, individual attention. Liz sees the value of one-to-one mentoring, where not just being part of a crowd, can have a more effective impact on the individual. It allows pupils to sit down with a mentor and really say what they need. Liz described intergenerational mentoring as giving pupils a more “bespoke experience.” In S5 pupils are at an age where they are really growing up and they change their mind about things as they grow – having a mentor throughout that time to help them process everything makes the journey easier and keeps them on track while allowing them to explore.

To other headteachers, Liz would say, “You don’t realise the value until it starts.”

Contact us if you would like to work in partnership with the Intergenerational Mentoring Network to set up mentoring within your school community.