Mentoring and young people

Blackpool - Like Ellis Craven on Unsplash

Blackpool – Like Ellis Craven on Unsplash

There was been a mushrooming of youth mentoring projects across the UK. Yet relatively little was known in the UK about the background to the idea and the principles underlying mentoring initiatives. Kate Philip investigates.

contents: introduction ·the context ·the background · what is mentoring? · conclusions · references

Mentoring is now a key element within national and local strategies for working with young people, especially those who are regarded as ‘socially excluded’. As yet, few systematic evaluations of youth mentoring have taken place to enable comparisons to be made between projects and with other forms of youth intervention. It is important to critically analyze the concept and to highlight the distinctive elements of youth mentoring. In this short review we set out to do this by looking at how mentoring links into current preoccupations about young people, and by exploring how mentoring has been defined. We illustrate these points by drawing on findings from a recent study of natural mentoring processes carried out by the author and others.

The idea of mentoring holds great appeal – it conjures up a positive way of bridging boundaries between generations and harks back to notions of large extended families and friendly neighbourhoods within which young people and elders could establish common ground. Some of the literature from North America points to the absence of older guides for young people which is frequently attributed to the flight of the middle classes from inner city areas (Freedman, 1993). Unlike many other forms of youth intervention, it has grabbed the interest of an otherwise diverse group of politicians, policy makers, and practitioners from the public, private and voluntary sectors.

The context – changing youth, changing needs

It is clear that young people in Northern European societies are growing up in a very different world to that of previous generations (Griffin, 1993; Wallace, 1995). The effects of globalization in combination with general social, demographic and economic trends have had a powerful impact on the experience of being young. In addition, within the UK policy changes in housing, education and employment have prolonged the dependency of many young people on their families (Coles, 1995). Clearly the changes outlined above have not been experienced equally across the youth population but have been most significant for those that already have the least resources (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997).

All this is taking place as public perceptions about young people have become increasingly contradictory: ‘Moral panics’ about youth are not new but these have reached new levels of intensity as any glance at a tabloid newspaper will suggest (James and Jenks, 1996). Thus, some groups of young people are frequently constructed as a threat rather than as a resource for the future (Brannen et al, 1994; Jeffs and Smith, 1999). Simultaneously concern about the vulnerability of young people has led to unprecedented levels of surveillance over some groups (Harden et al, 2000).

Within a research context, a growing body of work has highlighted the complexities and diversities of youth transitions to adulthood. Thus, we now know that there multiple pathways to adulthood and that these continue to be structured by race, class and gender (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997). There has also been greater recognition of young people as social actors themselves whose own views of their social worlds are of value and this has led to innovative approaches to research design, planning and in some cases, analysis. At a theoretical level, Beck’s (1992) work on the ‘risk society’ is helpful in framing such developments.

Briefly, Beck (1992) has suggested that these changes are part of a global shift to a new ‘risk society’ which is marked by a loosening of traditional ties and structures. Thus, traditional institutions such as the family no longer hold the power to predict how to deal with the risks of this new modernity. This, in turn, enables individuals to construct their own biographies as they meet the challenges of day to day living. Although this opens up opportunities, it also creates further risks as few safety nets exist. Beck’s individualization thesis particularly useful in examining natural mentoring relationships in relation to the social networks of young people.

The importance of ‘natural’ mentoring relationships in helping young people in making successful transitions to adulthood is well recognized. Reports from the USA have pointed to these relationships as promoting ‘resiliency’ or the potential of some young people to overcome adverse circumstances (Freedman, 1993). Rutter (1995) found that mentoring was one of a number of ‘steeling mechanisms’ that can foster resilience to continued crises. Jean Rhodes, has shown that ‘natural’ mentors who are drawn from the local neighbourhood can help young mothers in dealing with difficulties encountered in personal relationships and stave off depression (Rhodes et al, 1992). A recent study carried out by the author found that mentoring relationships can assist young people and their mentors to develop a form of ‘cultural capital’ or a set of recipes to deal with the challenges they face in their day to day lives. These issues included a wide range of issues which included dealing with difficulties in relationships, surviving on few resources, and carving out a sexual identity (Philip 1999; Philip and Hendry, 2000).

Taken together, these findings suggest that there is a place for programmes to develop planned relationships with young people who are experiencing difficulties but who have no obvious natural mentors. For these reasons it is important to learn more about the processes of natural mentoring relationships and how these can be translated into policy interventions. We also need to understand how such relationships interact with other forms of support and interventions such as youth work.

Mentoring – the background

Although it is only recently that mentoring has become a feature of social policy, it is an idea that has been around for a considerable period of time. Most recent interest has derived from the business world, where mentoring is used in the induction of recruits into the culture of the organization, in improving communication between different levels of management, and in encouraging access for groups that are traditionally excluded from senior management positions (Clutterbuck, 1985).

UK interest in youth mentoring programmes has drawn heavily on the US experience. The theoretical framework for these programmes was heavily influenced by the functionalist sociology of James Coleman (1961) whose thesis bears marked resemblance to current UK government rhetoric. Coleman argued that traditional methods of socializing youth, such as schools and the family had lost their power and authority: schools were failing to equip young people to enter the labour market and the increase in single parent families headed by women was disastrous for large numbers of young people. As a result young people relied on peers rather than parents and were hostile to the norms of mainstream society. Mentoring programmes could compensate for poor family support, ‘rescue’ young people from the bad influence of the street and peer group and so assist young people to make the successful transition to adulthood.

The uncritical acceptance of traditional developmental theories about youth, the culture and gender bound assumptions about family organisation, the neglect of structural factors such as poverty and the reluctance to view young people as social actors have all been subject to trenchant criticism. A strong body of empirical evidence has also shown that the notion of a ‘generation gap’ has been exaggerated and that parents remain the most significant people in the lives of many young people (Coleman and Hendry, 1999). Nevertheless, this argument retains a powerful hold on popular images of youth and is an increasingly powerful theme in current UK debates around the family, childhood and youth (Silva and Smart, 1999). It has also been translated into rationales for mentoring programmes in both the USA and the UK.

What is mentoring? A concept in search of definition

The classic definition of mentoring is of an older experienced guide who is acceptable to the young person and who can help ease the transition to adulthood by a mix of support and challenge. In this sense it is a developmental relationship in which the young person is inducted into the world of adulthood (Hamilton, 1991; Freedman, 1995). Homer’s account of the myth of Telemachos and Mentor is usually drawn on to illustrate this definition. According to the myth, Odysseus entrusted the education of his son, Telemachos, to his wise friend Mentor, who was charged with guiding the young man on the way to adulthood. But Mentor was really the goddess, Athene in disguise, an aspect that lends an interesting twist to the story. On the face of it, this story and the classic definition provide a useful starting point but there are several points, which demand closer scrutiny.

First, this model proposes a highly individualistic model of mentoring in which the relationship is essentially private and isolated from the social network of the young person. The mentor identifies the sometimes hidden potential, as well as the problems facing the young person and works to draw this out. Thus the relationship is based on the transmission of information and advice from the mentor with the mentee a relatively passive actor in the process. This construction of mentoring emphasises fitting the young person into existing structures rather than capable of actively reflecting on the situation.

Second, the classic model is highly gendered and is based on models of development that privileges white male experience (Brown and Gilligan, 1992). In the myth, the mother and nurse are portrayed as lacking the skills to induct Telemachos into the adult world. He must break away from his relationship with his mother in order to join the world of men, which is equated with successful adulthood. Much of the mentoring literature emphasizes the perceived crisis in masculinity as signalling a need for mentoring (Bly, 1990). This has been largely reinforced by a number of programmes in the USA, that portray young men from single parent families as in need of mentoring for this reason alone. Mentoring in this context is viewed as a means of developing an ‘appropriate’ male identity (Wright, 1992)

Third, the mentoring relationship is described with little reference to the young person’s stated needs. The young person is constructed as in deficit – lacking skills, appropriate socialization, lacking appropriate parenting and subject to peer pressure. Nevertheless evaluations of mentoring have pointed to the lack of knowledge held by middle class mentors about the realities of growing up in impoverished circumstances (Freedman, 1993). Studies of ‘natural’ mentoring suggest too that it is not viewed as a static relationship by mentees or mentors but like other relationships is a set of dynamic and fluid processes of negotiation (Philip, 2000).

A recent study undertaken by the author has shown that in contrast to this focus on one model, a variety of styles of natural mentoring are in operation. (The three year study was funded by the Johann Jacobs Foundation and undertaken at the Centre for Educational Research, University of Aberdeen.) This qualitative study examined young people and mentors experiences of natural mentoring relationships. Findings suggested that peer mentoring, unofficial adults, friend to friend and group or team mentoring were salient as well as the classic model (Philip and Hendry, 1996). In this way, young people sought support from those they believed to have relevant and accessible knowledge. The processes were described as ’empowering’ in enabling them to reflect on their own ideas and experiences, particularly when mentoring took place within group settings. In this sense the process bore some relation to Freirean educational approach (Forrest, 1999). Young people interviewed in the study identified a range of key elements of ‘good mentoring’ including factors such as trust and confidentiality, reciprocity and mutual respect, support and challenge. Factors, which would inhibit mentoring relationships, included authoritarian approaches, lack of respect, taking control away from the young person, intrusiveness and ‘forcing the pace’. A key element was that the relationship was one where the benefits to all partners were recognized: thus mentors were perceived as themselves benefiting from the processes (Philip and Hendry, 2000).

In this way mentoring appeared to be a set of processes which could take place within a variety of settings and contexts but where the agenda was negotiated between those involved and was subject to change over time. Mentoring processes were described as being about mutual learning and reflection on a wide range of issues.

However it was often situations of crisis or uncertainty which triggered mentoring and which transformed an existing relationship into a mentoring one. Thus it was situations of risk, particularly experiences of exclusion that provided the impetus for mentoring processes being brought into play (Philip and Hendry, 2000). In this way, mentoring processes were viewed as a means of making sense of an often chaotic world where new strategies were required. The social worlds of those interviewed reflected many dimensions of Beck’s (1992) risk society in that traditional sources of support were limited in meeting the challenges faced.


This piece has explored a number of dimensions of mentoring. It suggests that mentoring may hold potential for work with young people but that this needs to be woven into the realities and contexts in which they live. Rather than one model of mentoring, a variety of styles are in existence, which provide support that is acceptable to young people in a range of settings.

Mentoring can go beyond ‘throwing resources’ at what may be seen as intractable problems. It introduces a personalized element and recognizes the psychosocial impact of poverty and inequalities. It has the potential to bring communities themselves into an analysis of themes of partnership and empowerment. In this way it could provide a means of regenerating community identities and issues.

The enthusiasm for mentoring among many different sectors itself reflects a lack of clarity about the concept since and it is in danger of becoming a catch-all term. This creates major difficulties in establishing and sustaining credibility in the idea, since it is difficult to identify what the distinctive contribution of mentoring is to the lives of young people.

This need for a strong theoretical basis which takes account of the changing context of youth is urgent, not as a stale academic exercise but to ensure that there is an agreed framework against which mentoring can be assessed in relation to other forms of intervention. Much current theorizing has been imported uncritically from the USA and is based on outdated developmental models that are limited in their relevance to the current context. The author has attempted to build a typology of mentoring which can accommodate both the perspectives of young people and the realities of the risk society.


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© Kate Philip 2000 First  published August 2000.