One year on: Learning Mentor project – Annual update (2020/21)

This update highlights the work of our Love to Learn’s Learning Mentor project over the last year (April’20-April’21).

1. Summary of 2020/21

This year we have worked with 64 volunteer learning mentors paired with young people from a refugee background who are struggling at school. We had originally aimed to support 60. The children and young people are assessed and deemed to be in need of additional educational support. The mentors visit for one hour a week, until the end of the academic year. This has been happening online, rather than face to face, during the Covid lockdowns.

The Covid-19 crisis has meant that we have found it difficult to maintain as many mentors. Though we recruited, trained and supported an additional 17 new volunteers, 43 mentors left the project over the year. The instability caused by Covid and the lockdowns meant that some mentors were not able to continue with their commitments. In other cases, online sessions just did not work well for a particular young person (though they did for some), especially during the period when schools were closed and so they were spending much of the day already receiving online learning. They found it hard to have an additional period of online screen time, having spent so much of the day indoors and working online. We plan to recruit more volunteers as the restrictions ease later in the year.

2. Current needs within the refugee community in Wandsworth

The difficulties encountered by the refugee young people we work with have worsened in the past year. As well as the ongoing factors which can hold them back in achieving academically, many of which can linger onto the next generation, the impact of the pandemic has been hardest for them and has increased the attainment differential between them and the average.

We’ve unfortunately had many families telling us that their children have been hugely demotivated regarding their learning. They have spent long periods of time not doing much learning at all. This has been exacerbated by the fact that in many cases there are not enough laptops at home for all the school or college aged children to use for their studies. We did manage to fundraise for over 150 laptops for the children we work with.

A study published in September 2020 by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) concluded that the gap in England between some pupils on low incomes and their wealthier peers widened by 46% in the school year severely disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown; and that disadvantaged and black and minority ethnic (BAME) children had gone backwards compared with their better-off peers since March.

3. How we’re working at the moment

Mentoring continues to happen online (mainly on Zoom). We’ve looked periodically at the safety of home visits. Apart from a brief period between the first and second lockdowns, we’ve concluded that our duty of care to our volunteers and families means that all mentoring happens online for the time being. We are continuing to monitor the situation as the restrictions ease.

In most cases the sessions are continuing to work well online. The contact between the volunteers and their young people has also provided a lifeline of emotional support for our young people during this difficult year, when many are finding that their mental health has taken a turn for the worse.

A pleasant surprise has been that in some cases the mentor and their mentee have told us that online support works better for them than face to face visits. It can help them to focus, and is easier for those who are shy or somewhat uncomfortable with an outsider visiting their home environment. It has also meant that we’ve been able to match some Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children that live out of our area, who we otherwise could not have supported, because the mentoring is virtual. For example, one of our unaccompanied asylum seekers, who lives in Mitcham, is receiving help from one of our mentors who moved out of London because of the pandemic.

However, for some mentor and mentee pairs it has proved too difficult to mentor online. Some of these have paused in the hope that at some point they will be able to resume face to face sessions. Others have changed to having weekly phone calls so they can at least keep the contact going and provide emotional support to their young people.

We had already updated our safeguarding advice and training to volunteers to reflect the different situation of mentoring online. We have continued to update this in accordance with guidance from the National Youth Association. The Trustees introduced a new Digital Safeguarding Policy too.

We’ve distributed 150+ laptops to families in need, and provided IT help, training and support (especially around safeguarding – for the children and their parents). This has been of huge benefit, some of whom would have been completely cut off from learning otherwise, especially when the schools and colleges were physically closed.

4. Who are we working with?

We continue to get referrals from local schools and self-referrals from families who have heard about our work. We are focussing more on older students, as online study seems to work better for them than younger children.

Examples of current mentees are: Two children from Afghanistan came over to the UK and we’re reunited with their father last year. They were keen to learn. They did not speak English fluently and had missed a lot of school in their home country. They were put into Year’s 7 and 8 and had a lot of catching up to do. We donated two laptops and taught them to use Zoom, so they can benefit from mentoring online, as well as attend school online. The youngest girl has become the main IT support for the family!

Another is a girl, R, who has been having anxiety attacks since the start of the pandemic. Her mother works long hours as a carer. There are five siblings in the family, so R doesn’t feel she has anyone to talk to. We matched her with a mentor who has counselling experience at the Baytree Centre (a social inclusion charity in Brixton), especially supporting young girls. The mentor was able to help R start to talk about her feelings and be a sympathetic ear, as well as show her techniques for relaxing. The girl has a great talent for drawing. The mentor encouraged the girl’s artwork which was a great way for her to start re-gaining her confidence and deal with lockdown. We contributed art materials, posted to R’s address, which helped to motivate her too.

5. Training and supporting our volunteers

We have taken on the challenge of moving mentoring online and a big part of this has been training the mentors to be able to use Zoom as a platform for delivering sessions. Following our initial session in which we showed mentors the useful tools they could use (so they could share the view of a piece of homework and work on documents at the same time with their mentee); we have developed their skills further with three more (online) sessions in which they shared useful websites and tips. We discussed how to address concentration issues and we explored activities which could be used to break up a session. We also gave advice on how to work on texts together and on maths games. It was useful to have the experience of our colleague, Ayla, who is a Maths teacher. For the other two sessions we invited an outside speaker, Sarah Nathanson, a secondary school teacher, who talked about theories of learning and strategies to structure a session to maximise retention of new information.

6. Measuring impact of the project

We introduced a new system of weekly rather than monthly feedback from volunteers. We set up a system whereby they had a secure, individual log-in on our website, and could very quickly record how their sessions went and ask for any help. This has proved better than the monthly feedback by email, as mentors are recording a session just after it happened and so it was fresher in their minds. The system is also much easier and quicker to use.

We are now evaluating progress of each pair four times a year, via an online form which mentors complete with their mentee. This should enable us to have an accurate picture of exactly how the young people benefit from the contact they have with their mentor.

7. Case studies

DG and KF

DG is a young person, in Year 8, with a very troubled home life. Her mother has serious mental health problems and ill health. As a result, DG often cares for her younger two siblings, one of whom has suspected ADHD. She finds this very stressful and it stops her being able to concentrate on her school work. She also has a rather difficult relationship with her mother which upsets her. Her mother does not allow her to leave the house much and has prevented her from taking part in extra-curricular activities in the past.

Her mentor, KF, has been working with her before lockdown, but once that happened, she was aware that DG was particularly vulnerable. She increased her sessions to twice a week with regular phone calls also. She encouraged her to talk about how she was feeling and helped motivate her to study.

This is the latest update from the mentor: “DG and I have been working on maths, French, Technology & Design, and history. DG was especially enthusiastic about issues around race, discrimination and slavery which have cropped up in many of her assignments given recent events. Fortunately, I have a master’s in racial studies so we had lengthy discussions about George Floyd and wider racial discrimination and structural racism which she seemed to have an excellent grasp of. She was asked to write a speech and chose this topic – her teacher really applauded her for it.

Generally, I have seen her not only improve her knowledge but also her methodology. She approaches her homework differently enabling her to do it more efficiently without compromising on the quality. I consider this a key development for her. On a personal level, I have also witnessed visible growth in the way she handles relationships with family and friends. It has been a pleasure to see.

IS and KV

IS and KV started working together in April 2019. IS is a young person from Pakistan and is studying at Merton College. They would meet in the library each week to practice English. During the pandemic they have continued to meet online every week. IS found the pandemic difficult and isolating at times and struggled to keep up with her online learning. KV continued to support her with this and helped her to access all her learning materials.

IS used to say that she wanted to go to University but then suddenly changed her mind, saying she no longer wanted to go. KV let us know that she was worried about this decision and she didn’t know why she had changed her mind. IS then told us and KV that she didn’t think she was clever or good enough to go to University. KV continued this discussion with IS and helped her to realise that she was good enough to go to University if she still wanted to. It would be hard work but she reminded IS that she had been working hard and well for a long time now. KV helped IS to believe in herself again and rebuild her confidence. IS successfully applied to University and is doing well. She is studying Business and Accounting at the University of East London.

8. Quotes from mentors

“I just wanted to let you know some nice news I had: I had to phone A’s mum about changing the time this week and she told me that A had received two merits in English in the same day, and that he had never done that before. She sounded so proud of him.”

“She had started to lose focus during lockdown, but then in July I was able to visit her and read with her. I meant to just drop a book off but she really wanted to read with me and I ended up staying for two hours. She reads to me and we sound out difficult words and then we talk about things: for example, Broc the Badger – Broc is an old English word for badger. I call it sideways learning where she learns and talks about things without realising she’s learning.”

“Last time we read a colourful description of a seashore and I highlighted style points to look out for in such descriptions. I also introduced M to elements of rhetoric, such as repetition and addressing the reader directly. She knew about alliteration and showed me a poem she’d written at school. At her suggestion, we’re each going to write a short poem for next week. She seemed really keen on that!”

“I do often interact – and sometimes include – A and A (younger sisters) in our work. One day they had me up on a TV screen, so they could all see me clearly and learn together! They do make me laugh!”

9. Outcomes

As a team we aim to support children and young people from a refugee background to flourish and succeed in education through equality of access and academic attainment.

We work hard to achieve the following outcomes with our young people:

Improved confidence

87% of mentees who completed the evaluation display high levels of confidence – based on scoring themselves across 7 areas of daily life.

Positive engagement with learning

75% of young people who are mentored said they engaged positively with learning.

87% of mentors said that their mentees often engaged well in their learning sessions during the mentoring sessions.

Gained knowledge and understanding of educational pathways

100% of mentored young people, over the age of 13, have been involved in appropriate discussions about their educational pathways.

Raised aspirations

93% of young people who are mentored have aspirations, and know what they want to do when they leave school.

66% of those with aspirations post school want to go into further education and have a clear plan of grades needed to fulfill their dreams.

Ability to build trusting relationship

87% of mentors feel they have a good relationship with their mentee and there is trust between them.

10. Plans for the future

We plan to integrate the work of the mentoring scheme more closely with other projects in our Love to Learn education team, so we can further pool our resources and skills. For example, our recruitment and training of volunteers will be run by both teams. We plan to monitor the progress of our mentees more intensively, using the data from our new system of evaluating the mentor/mentee progress four times in the year. This will enable us to see more clearly what progress we are making and what areas we need to improve.

We have learnt so much about how to support young people online, and have found that in some cases it is effective and feasible, in a way that face to face learning cannot be. So, we are going to put this to good use by developing a blended model of online and face to face learning, which will expand the scope of what we can do.

We also plan to add in an employability/career and study advice component to our mentoring of the older age group, as we’ve found that this is very much needed and is something which can be provided by mentors. This will give our older mentees the guidance and support they need so as to maximise the opportunities available to them.

We’re planning for a big round of recruitment in September’21, recruiting around 25 new mentors so that we are up to capacity. And then a further round in January’22. We have a long list of mentees waiting to be matched so will be able to see up some new pairings with new mentors who we will recruit over the summer.

11. Thank You

Thank you again to all those who have supported this programme (including Sir Walter St John’s Educational Charity, Garfield Weston Foundation and a number of individual supporters).

12. Contact

If you would like to discuss this report in more detail then please contact Paula Robertson, KLS’ Head of Love to Learn on [email protected]

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