Why mentoring problem children may be
Every day, thousands of busy, professional people make
time to mentor troubled teenagers, hoping to bridge the boundaries of
generation and culture to rescue them from the bad influence of the
street or to compensate for poor family support. But the first
systematic evaluation of youth mentoring has found the schemes are far
less effective and considerably more expensive than had been thought.
'The results were more than slightly disheartening,'
said professor Ian St James-Roberts of the Thomas Coram Research Unit,
whose research project, commissioned by the Youth Justice Board, will be
published tomorrow. 'Our failure to find evidence of improvements in
behaviour, literacy and numeracy raises doubts as to whether [mentoring
makes] a significant, lasting difference.'
Mentoring has become a key element in strategies for
working with troubled young people. More than two-thirds of schools in
England and Wales now run mentoring schemes, while the charity, CSV, or
Community Service Volunteers, has seen a 370 per cent rise in volunteers
since 2002. But the youth board, which supports more than 80 mentoring
projects, is to reconsider that backing.
The year-long study trained more than 3,000 volunteers
to help teenagers improve their literacy, numeracy and behaviour through
a range of mentoring schemes.But over half the young people referred to
the scheme either refused to take part or dropped out.
'Although the mentors had some success in encouraging
the young people who remained in the scheme, there were too few
improvements overall to make the schemes viable,' said James-Roberts.
Although the children who remained in the project said
they enjoyed the experience, there was no discernable improvement in
their numeracy, literacy, behaviour and offending behaviour.
'There seems to be no justification to run volunteer
mentoring schemes on a stand-alone basis,' added James-Roberts.
Another problem was that the cost of training and
supervising the volunteers made the programmes more expensive than
alternative professional schemes.
'The average cost per child of a Youth Justice Board
education, training and employment scheme is £2,300,' said
James-Roberts. 'A volunteer mentoring scheme, however, costs over three
times as much but produces similar results.'
Experts running mentor schemes have cautiously
welcomed the study. Chris Eastwood, head of inclusion at the Battersea
Technology College in London, defended mentors who work with children to
raise their academic horizons but agreed supporting a troubled child is
a different matter.
'Being good-hearted and willing to help is not enough
to help a child who is at risk of offending, or is already doing so,' he
said. 'Non-professional mentors simply don't know how to communicate at
the level required by these children.'
Many mentors echo these concerns. 'It is harder to
communicate with children from troubled backgrounds than one might
think,' said Owen Jonathan, a partner at PriceWaterhouseCooper who began
mentoring an 11-year-old girl in an inner-city school last year.
'There is a temptation to simply try to get on with
the child rather than challenge them to set and reach certain goals. I
think it is down to a mixture of serendipity and luck whether a mentor
is of any real use.
January 29, 2006 The Observer