Learning mentors and informal education

Learning mentors became part of the life of many schools in England. What were, and are, they doing? What issues face them?

As part of the Excellence in Cities (EiC) Initiative, the Department for Education and Employment in England, initiated what it described as an action plan to ‘raise standards, tackle failure and create a new culture of opportunity and success’. Part of the plan was to place learning mentors in selected schools and to develop learning support units (LSUs). The Excellence strategy initially focused on six conurbations: inner London, Birmingham, Manchester/Salford, Liverpool/Knowlsey, Leeds/Bradford and Sheffield/Rotherham. Other elements of the Initiative included expanding and recasting the beacon schools programme; extending opportunities for gifted and talented children (this includes special programmes for the ‘highest performing’ 5 – 10 per cent of students in selected schools and summer schools); encouraging setting; and giving a further emphasis to literacy and numeracy teaching. The direction of this Initiative fell in line with other government activities at the time including the new community schools in Scotland, and the youth support service (Connexions) in England. As result many of the same issues arise.

Learning mentors and learning support units

The specifics of what learning mentors do is a matter for individual schools.  However, the government set out four objectives for the learning mentor programme as a whole. These were to:

  • ensure, through the recruitment of a network of professionally trained learning mentors, that every pupil of secondary school age in eligible schools in the EiC areas will have access to a new resource focused on removing barriers to the pupil’s individual learning both in school and outside;
  • target help on those who need it most in deprived areas, especially those experiencing multiple disadvantage;
  • raise standards and reduce truancy and exclusion in the target areas, and to help local education authorities and schools make accelerated progress in achieving their attainment, truancy, exclusions and other relevant targets; and

The idea was that learning mentors would build on ‘successful models of multi-agency behaviour support teams which the Government is promoting in order to reduce truancy and exclusion’.


The role of the learning mentor

The expectation is that Learning Mentors will participate in the comprehensive assessment of all secondary age children in the EiC areas entering or returning to school, and in progress checks at the end of Years 7 and 9. (This will not include the assessment of special educational needs.) The aim will be to identify through the school’s assessment process those who need extra help to overcome barriers to learning and who would benefit most from a Learning Mentor, building on effective pastoral and other arrangements already in place. Learning Mentors should devote the majority of their time to those needing extra support to realize their full potential, and will draw up and implement action plans for those identified as needing such support (except where the pupil was already subject to an individually tailored plan such as an Individual Education Plan). They will also monitor and report on action plans including those drawn up by others, for example the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) or the gifted and talented coordinator.

Learning Mentors will work closely with the Special Educational Needs Coordinator and the senior member of staff responsible for gifted and talented provision, to ensure that all children receive appropriate help. It will also be important to ensure that the Learning mentors work does not duplicate that of the SENCO and gifted and talented coordinator. For example, although Learning Mentors may have contact with SEN pupils, as indicated above, they will not be responsible for drawing up action plans for an SEN pupil who is already subject to an Individual Education Plan. The Learning Mentors will personally target efforts on those disproportionately at risk of underachieving, who would not be catered for by the SENCO or the gifted and talented coordinator.

We see a key role for Learning Mentors in supporting schools to improve the transfer and use of curriculum, assessment and other information from primary to secondary stage, and within and between schools. Learning Mentors will also be responsible for ensuring that the arrangements for those who leave the school mid term before 16, including teenage mothers, are managed properly. Working with others, the Learning Mentor will also need to ensure that children who are sick, for example for long periods, receive additional support whilst they are absent from school to enable them to keep up with their studies.

Learning Mentors will have an crucial role to promote the effective exchange of information between the various local authority and other external support agencies, to the benefit of pupils and their families. Learning Mentors will act as the single point of contact for accessing these specialist support services, for example, the Social and Youth Services, the Educational Welfare Service, the Probation and Careers Services. They will also be the point of contact for accessing a range of community and business based programmes including out of school study support and mentoring schemes. Learning Mentors will need to work closely with local business and community mentors. They will need to take an active role in coordinating and supporting the work of voluntary mentors working with young people both in and out of school, so that the mentor’s efforts meet the needs of the child in a focused and integrated way.

Learning Mentors will work closely with local Personal Advisers responsible for coordinating support for 16 and 17 year olds who need extra help to access a mainstream learning opportunity. That help will be provided within the new Learning Gateway which Careers Services and TECs, working with other partners, will be responsible for delivering from this September. The aim will be to ensure that the opportunities offered post 16 are set firmly in a continuum of support during schooling and beyond. Effective links with the Careers Service are also needed, to ensure young people receive sound advice and guidance on post-school options. The Learning Mentor role should be recognized in the partnership agreement between schools and the Careers Service.

Excellence in Cities (1999) http://www.standards.dfee.gov.uk/library/publications/excellence/additional/EicLeaMent/


The government has also given guidance as to who might benefit from learning mentor support and for how long. They suggest that low attainment in relation to ability, falling motivation, a pattern of non-attendance, behavioural difficulties and poor relations with staff and pupils would all be indicators of priority need. Some may require short – term relatively simple interventions, while others may need much more intensive and time consuming support.

The EiC Initiative has also made provision for learning units outside classrooms where students who need intensive support can spend time. They argue that such units have been shown to work in ‘helping children who have become disengaged from learning to make progress. They also ensure that no child’s education is undermined by a disruptive minority’ (EiC 1999 Learning Mentors and Learning Support Units).

Some issues

The Excellence in Cities does have a number of fundamental flaws – as well as some interesting possibilities. It takes its lead from well telegraphed government concerns about standards and opportunities in education. It is part of an effort, as Tony Blair put it, to move from a ‘low skill average to a high skill average’ and to promote ‘diversity with excellence’ in education – ‘an education meeting the full range of individual needs beyond the basics’ (Blair 1999: The Romanes Lecture). Notice here the emphasis on individual achievement and economic ends – there is little ‘hard’ talk of fostering a democratic community and civic society. Unfortunately, some central features of the Initiative such as the emphasis upon ‘setting’ or streaming have also been discredited. Analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research of 20 research studies in the UK and the United States has found that setting has no overall impact upon student performance (Nicolas Barnard, Times Educational Supplement May 7, 1999). Here I want to focus on some issues around the learning mentor initiative (but that also connect with wider policy concerns).

What actually is a mentor? The term ‘mentor’, like may familiar words, has its origins in ancient Greek literature. When Odysseus sailed to join the war against the Trojans, he chose a friend, Mentor, to act as a guide and adviser to his son Telemachus whilst he was away. In this sense, then, mentors will sometimes act like supervisors. They will try to help participants to reflect upon their experiences, to develop an understanding of them, and to apply these understandings to new situations. The process involves looking to values and feelings as well as developing skills and building theories about why things happen as they do. At other times mentors act as tutors or teachers. But they also do something more. They advise. As ‘guides’ or advisers, mentors may suggest as to how to tackle situations, or offer practical support for the work. The original Mentor was a wise counselor. This mix of roles is a difficult one to sustain – and in more recent usage has often deteriorated into a poor imitation of the third of these. Whether mentor is quite the right term for the roles that those appointed undertake is a matter for some debate. I suspect that looking at these through the lens of informal education may be more appropriate.

 The continued trend to individualization. Excellence in Cities  argues for an individual as well as an institutional perspective. As we saw with regard to new community schools in Scotland the policy falls in line with other elements of government activity around lifelong learning, and the youth support service. There is an increasing focus upon targeting interventions at named individuals rather than working to enhance the readiness and capacity of groups and communities to better meet their members’ needs. ‘Individual planning, target-setting and monitoring of pupil progress need to apply to every pupil not just those with special educational needs’ DfEE 1999). Alongside this a form of casework is proposed seems to be the dominant way of working for mentors. People are identified who are in need of intervention in order that they turn away from engaging in high-risk activities; re-engage with the schooling system; and/or to deal with their troubles. Some schools have not taken this track and have preferred instead to focus more strongly on what they might be doing to cause or exacerbate problems with students. For them, learning mentors offer an opportunity to open up a dialogue with students and to see how the school might alter to better accommodate their needs. While still having to ‘deliver’ to the objectives set by the government, there is some freedom in how these may be approached around the role of the mentor.

The threat posed by connexions. While the learning mentor initiative has its flaws, the relative freedom enjoyed by schools and mentors to develop the role has, up until now, been a definite plus. It has allowed many mentors to look to the possibilities of informal education. It has been possible to develop a range of groupwork; to explore the school as the ‘problem’ rather than the student; and to look to the possibilities of association. However, under proposals to establish  connexions – the youth support service there will be significant limitations upon the learning mentor role. There is to be a linking of the new personal adviser and learning mentor role. This involves the imposition of a fairly rigid caseload requirement will not allow for the space that mentors require to respond in the best way to the experiences of students.

Centralization and the threat to democracy. As with other government initiatives, this programme is funded centrally. There has to be some question as to whether it is a further nail in the coffin of local democracy.

The problems of an outcome orientation: As we have seen there has been the growing use of fairly crude outcome targets by which to judge the activities of agencies and individuals. There seems to be some evidence that the orientation is exacerbating problems within the schooling system. For example, Gillborn and Youdell (1999) have argued on the basis of a Nuffield Foundation study, that since the publication of results schools are rationalizing education – and that this has resulted in them widening the attainment gap. In other words, league tables are driving up inequality. The focus on examination and SAT attainment within schooling also means that other key aspects of the education process get sidelined. There are significant problems associated with product approaches to curriculum – so much of the richness of educational encounters cannot be captured within this focus. Furthermore, the concentration on achieving a particular outcome can easily encourage undemocratic practices and outcomes. Classically, within the learning mentor initiative, interventions look like being assessed on a narrow range of outcomes – rather than on any contribution made to the quality of civic life, personal flourishing or social relationships that arise out of the process of informal education.

While some of these may be open to some sort of process assessment and concern with formal attainment, given experiences elsewhere it is still likely the focus will be on matters like attendance, qualification and upon other indices around health and social service referrals.

Acknowledgement: Picture by Aftab Uzzaman on Flickr-https://www.flickr.com/photos/aftab/879471490-ccbync2

© Mark K. Smith. First published December 1999. Updated 2014