28 March 2013

The mentoring challenge

As a photography student I loved the lectures and hours spent in the studio, making mistakes and getting lost in my work. But one of the most important parts of my development was listening to the professional and amateur photographers who came to show us their work. Some were seasoned pros, others had graduated more recently – but they all helped broaden our horizons. Our lecturers promised them nothing more than a bottle of wine and a captive audience, but they inspired us. Some subsequently became friends, and further helped me to find my feet.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I moved back to London, began to build my client base, and discovered that I’d learnt more in six months as a working photographer than I had in two years of photography school. That – of course – is pretty similar to most industries!

But I also realised that in the era of expensive higher education, I could help the sixth formers studying photography in the schools around where I lived in south London, and potentially steer them towards or away from photography at university. I’d benefitted from other people putting their time in to me, and mentoring was a debt I needed to repay. I rang all the secondary schools in the two boroughs my home was straddled between, and offered to talk to their students, show them some of my work and equipment, and explain how photography had transformed my life.

What surprised me was that of the dozens of schools I contacted, only two were interested. One had a strong focus on the creative arts – with a fantastic head of department, who regularly took her students to see exhibitions in town, and practically bit my arm off when I explained why I wanted to get involved. The other was a new 6th Form college with three quarters of the children receiving free school meals, and an inspiring head of sixth form who wanted all her students to have an adult mentor who could give them an insight into the professional world, contact that she was adamant would help them maximise their potential and broaden their horizons.

As a careers and skills mentor I’ve been able to help my students learn the rules of the game, recognise the value of volunteering in developing CVs, etc. – the things that are subconsciously drilled into students with parents working in the professions. And last week I got an email from one of my sixth-formers who’d been offered a part-time job after I prodded her into a round of door-knocking in the field she wants to study when she finishes her A-levels.

Likewise, I hope I’ve opened new horizons for my photography students, as well as given them a glimpse of the professional world on the other side of the expensive creative colleges. And I’ve helped the school’s art department buy equipment that enhances their teaching and persuaded my suppliers to sell gear at cost so that the children are learning with the same tools that they will use if they go and assist commercial photographers. Their excitement when I showed them how to shoot magazine cover portraits in their classroom was a priceless experience.

Of course, it isn’t exactly news to anyone that mentoring is hugely helpful – as I found out when I was a student photographer. The Department for Education’s latest guidance describes how ‘mentoring programmes and mentoring relationships have greater potential than others to maximise impact’, but frustratingly only acknowledges learning mentors (i.e. helping with day-to-day school work) and peer mentors (helping with bullying, moving to new schools, etc.). Nothing on helping children to see the bigger picture of what life might be able to offer them when they finish school, or about their university choices (an area where the state really could do with some help).

I remember a confident young girl telling me at the start of her A-levels that she wanted to do law at one of the UK’s top five universities. She’d chosen to study A-levels in law, general studies, media studies and psychology, and was nonplussed when I told her she would seriously struggle to get a place at the likes of Cambridge or UCL with her subject choices. Her teachers had told her she simply needed lots of A* grades, and the notion that some subjects are seen as ‘soft’ was unwelcome news.

Mentoring can play a big part in breaking down barriers in education and the early years of employment. Many people mentor at schools, but we don’t have a national culture of putting something back into the education system – particularly from white collar workers. How do we change this?

Some local authorities recognise the benefits of mentoring, yet fail to understand that it isn’t a command process – an appeal from a local education authority or council don’t really inspire people in the same way that being directly involved with a school does. I’m not particularly interested in jumping through whatever hoops Lambeth council might have in store for me; conversely I feel a strong sense of loyalty towards the two schools who were initially interested in how I could help their students. They took me purely on my enthusiasm and work experience (and current CRB form), but without spirit sapping paperwork that would deter most people.

There are difficulties: it is easy to match mentors with students in London, while there will be parts of the country where the need is greatest, but where there is a relative lack of people who are able to help. The good news is that mentoring doesn’t require significant money or time from schools – it just needs political leadership in encouraging people to knock on the door of their local school, and ensuring teachers are receptive to the idea of outsiders helping make education truly transformational.

First published by Platform 10 on March 28th, 2013