One year on: Learning Mentor project – Annual update (2019/20)

This update highlights the work of our Love to Learn’s Learning Mentor project over the last year (April’19-April’20).

Summary of 2019/20

We supported 77 volunteer learning mentors to work with 77 young people from a refugee background who are struggling at school. Of these, we recruited, trained and supported 22 new volunteers during the year. The children and young people have been assessed as in need of additional educational support, and the mentors visit for one hour a week for at least 6 months. The majority of the pairings last for a full academic year.

29 mentors left the project over the year, out of which 20 had mentored for 6 months or longer. Of the nine who mentored for less, four no longer had the time commitment or moved away, and in the remaining cases the match fell through after a session or two. We try to make partnerships work through sensitive discussion with the families and volunteers, but in some cases when the child feels negatively about it, or the family life is too chaotic to be able to commit to a weekly time, or there is a personality clash, it is better to re-match the mentor with a different family so this is what we do.

Background to the Learning Mentor project

We have identified that there is a tremendous need within the refugee community for additional support for children and young people. This can be for any number of reasons: low levels of English within the family; interrupted schooling in the home country; traumatic experiences before arrival; lack of home learning support; parents not understanding how the UK education system works and how to support their children’s education, children’s lack of confidence; racism, bullying and stereotyping (increased by the ‘hostile environment’ agenda); limited experiences outside school/home; lack of aspiration; Special Education Needs not being addressed.

School cuts decimated the EAL (English as an additional Language) provision at local authority and school level, so that new arrivals and children with language needs are rarely given the extra tuition they need and there are usually no specialist teachers in schools. While schools try their best to support children with language or other needs, their limited budgets and staffing levels make this often impossible.

How we do it: description of the Learning Mentor project

We work with children and young people, both boys and girls, aged 5 to 18 from many different countries with different education needs. Examples of current mentees are: a mentee whose mother is under a lot of stress from looking after his sibling, a severely disabled child, and is not able to give him enough support with his educational and emotional needs. Recent arrivals from Syria where the oldest child, in Year 2, had only just started to learn English and was becoming increasingly disaffected with school as he was frustrated at not understanding what was happening in class and had started to get in trouble for bad behaviour. We felt that this was to a great extent due to low confidence and that a mentor would stop his behaviour becoming too entrenched. This has so far seemed to work well.

Training and supporting our volunteers

We have held 5 training days for new volunteers during the year. We hold them early in the academic year as we believe it works better for a mentoring partnership to start at the beginning of the academic year and run to the summer. We cover safeguarding, confidentiality, ideas about supporting study, as well as topics such as causes of educational delay, liaison with schools and refugee issues. This gives the volunteers the skills they need to be able to support their mentee as well as giving us the chance to get to know them and make sure they have the right skills and experience. We hosted a curry night in July where volunteers had the chance to meet, discuss and share their experiences and feel motivated being part of a team.


We suggest to mentors that they take their mentees on outings to give the children a treat for working hard, and to cement their relationship together, as well as to give them an experience they would not normally have. One took her mentee to a city farm for the day, as she is very keen on animals. Another took her mentee to the design museum for an exhibition about Ferrari, as he is passionate about racing cars, he very much enjoyed making a model of a racing car while he was there. Two mentors also took their mentees to the local library.

Staff changes

We have three staff members in the team, the coordinator and two project workers, and during the year we have some staff changes. We recruited a new project worker in March 2020. This is a very positive development as she is a secondary school teacher, as well as having experience of co-ordinating a refugee school in Greece, setting up a youth leadership programme and managing volunteers there. She, therefore, brings a wealth of experience to our project in terms of assessing academic levels, motivating volunteers, and training on how to support children’s learning, and knowledge of the UK school system. We have also just recruited a Head of Love to Learn to oversee the whole education programme at KLS, this role has been needed for a number of years. The person appointed is a qualified teacher with a decade’s experience of designing and delivering youth development programmes for a national charity.

Measuring impact of the project

We monitor impact in a number of ways, learning mentors fill out a monthly record of their visits and we review placements on a six monthly and annual basis by visiting the family and also collecting a brief report from each mentor. We use this information to identify what additional support to give mentor/mentee pairs as well as to check on progress. Unfortunately, due to staff change over the last three years, capacity within the team and the implementation of a new database (Lamplight), in writing this report we have identified some gaps in our monitoring and data meaning and so we are currently unable to fully report on our outcomes. This is something we will be working on as a priority with the new Head of Love to Learn, and will come back to you about.

Case study: F and R

This young mentee, F, missed out on most of her nursery education, as the family were out of the country in Kenya until she was almost at school age.  Her mother noticed that she was slow to learn to speak and found it hard to concentrate and these difficulties became more apparent during reception and Year 1.  Mum spoke to teachers about her concerns but no extra help was given.  Mum speaks some English but doesn’t read and write and so couldn’t help F who was struggling with phonics and basic reading.  We matched F with an early years teacher from a local private school.  The mentor, R, felt that the worksheets that F was bringing as homework were too difficult and instead brought her own materials.  She also used games and activities, which were at an easier level.

An example of the mentor’s feedback:  F’s short-term memory means recalling sounds and sound groups is hard for her and when we met she could not count to 10 or recognise numbers. We are now reading simple books with sight words like ‘the’, ‘and’. ‘is’, ‘on’ being read with ease. She still prefers to guess words and struggles with digraphs but she can blend when assisted by me. F can now count to 12 and do simple addition and subtraction with counters and on her fingers. We are working on writing the numbers and building up to 20. 

She struggles with concentration and so we change activity every 10-15 mins. Every activity had to be fun and involve her moving around but I enjoyed this challenge. We start our sessions reading an EYFS reading book that I bring from my school. We then play a game with sight words. We count, sometimes on fingers, or use teddy bear counters or a number line brought from my school. We have started trying to write a few number sentences with white boards and pens. We finish with a story, she loves rhyming books. I read them to her and we talk about the pictures. She struggles to concentrate for a whole book but I use voices and ask questions to keep her engaged.

The mentor was instrumental in picking up that F has a delay in her speech and language development, giving us very useful specific evidence, which was presented to the school, to support the request for an assessment of SEN (Special Educational Needs), which is now being carried out.

Case study: A and V

A is a young person who arrived in the UK last year. She did not yet have a high level of English and as a result she had low confidence and was shy to speak with other people. A’s mentor V and her would meet once a week in a library to focus on increasing her confidence in speaking English. For the first month A was extremely shy and wouldn’t speak much but after realising they had a shared love of Turkish TV shows, A began to speak more. When the lockdown began V continued mentoring online through a weekly video call and they now focus on algebra questions. V still helps A build her confidence in English, by setting homework each week to read some of her book. They started with Matilda then continued with Toro! Toro!, which was set by the school. With V’s support A has improved her English but more importantly has increased her confidence to speak.

Quotes from mentors from this year:

“H spelled ‘broccoli’ perfectly three times and I brought him a stalk, as it is his favourite vegetable. He spelled it for F (his Mum) and she wanted to learn to spell it. It was wonderful to see H teaching Mum.”

“She has made big leaps but is still a long way behind her year group and needs support to not fall further behind. Her self-esteem is low but I think having a grownup that comes just for her and shows her with praise and makes things fun has been great for her.”

“Concentration is better and A shows is starting to show evidence of reading the question – an area we will continue to work on. I encourage her to talk through what the question is with me before diving in. A way to go still but we’re moving in the right direction.”

“M’s reading out loud skills seems to have improved significantly since I started working with her. We take turns reading which seems to be a great motivator. She now does different voices when reading, she knows she can make me laugh!”

“J showed much more knowledge of the topic than I had understood him to have in our first meeting. He read short passages and we talked about some Latin words he knew that were similar to English words. I suggested he make a list of them and we are going to use them as a basis for a word game.”

The impact of the current lockdown

We advised all volunteers to cease face-to-face sessions from the beginning of the lockdown (20th March). We have been extremely concerned for the young people we work with, as they are especially likely to fall behind in their studies, as they do not have the support at home needed whilst schools are closed. Furthermore, they are often in unsuitable crowded housing. A substantial proportion of the group we work with do not have access to laptops and therefore cannot access the work that their schools are setting them. In response we have had to alter the nature of our provision. Firstly we have much more direct contact with families and children: all our project workers are making at least weekly phone calls to families to offer reassurance and advice to parents.

We are running online group meetings for our volunteers, so that they can share tips and remain motivated by interacting with the rest of the volunteer group. One focused on technology such as zoom and Google docs to help volunteers work effectively online with their mentees. This is not always straightforward, some volunteers as well as families have found this difficult. So we have also encouraged volunteers to make regular phone calls every week so that the relationship is maintained and the young person feels supported to study. We have updated our safeguarding advice to volunteers to cover mentoring online and have supplied an updated guide to all volunteers. We have increased our budget for resources and are posting out reading books and creative packs so that the young people have something educational to work with. We have spent time looking through reading lists to ensure we are purchasing the most relevant items which will be most used. We have set up a new group of ‘Covid-19 online volunteers’, who we have recruited through social media. These are teachers or tutors who are confident in online tutoring and can be set up with a mentee very quickly and are able to mentor effectively using online methods.

Priorities for the future

It is of course difficult to predict exactly what we will be to achieve this year, given the current situation, but we have aim to be flexible and responsive to the situation as it evolves to best meet the needs of our young people.

Our main priority will be to review our full monitoring and evaluation process to ensure we are measuring the progress of our young people and using the data and learnings to inform our practice. Another priority is to forge closer relationships with schools in our community. We hope this will mean we’re better informed on learning targets for our mentees, as well as leading to more referrals of young people. We are aware that there are many more of them in the local area who we could be working with.

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).


If you would like to discuss this report in more detail then please contact Paula Robertson, KLS’ Head of Love to Learn on 020 7585 0339 and [email protected]

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