This article examines the role of the learning mentor and how they can be deployed in the school for the benefit of the whole learning community. David Morley reports

In recent years learning mentors have been used in schools across the country to break down the barriers to learning and help pupils to achieve their full potential through dedicated and professional support. They provide the link between academic and pastoral support, playing a vital role in the efforts to improve achievement levels.

The role of learning mentors

All children, irrespective of background, age or ability are capable of going through periods of poor behaviour. To really make an impact on learning and behaviour we need to aim to deal with such issues in a more systematic and professional manner, seeking to trace issues back to their root cause. This can only be done effectively through dialogue and discussion. The issues may be overcome quickly or may require more lengthy intervention and support.

The learning mentor’s role is not purely one of solving playground disputes. Learning mentors (LMs) are trained to work with children on both a collective and an individual basis to investigate the children’s concerns, fears and anxieties. Most schools using LMs employ a team of LMs to provide support and cover throughout the school. LMs are not based within the confines of one classroom but have a role throughout the school. Although LMs may provide timetabled support for some children, between them they should be on call to deal with matters as they arise.

The role of LMs came about as part of the DfES Excellence in Cities initiative and they are recognised as a new occupational group through the National Occupational Standards for Learning, Development and Support Services (NOS LDSS). NOS LDSS describes their role as: ‘support and guidance to children, young people and those engaged with them, by removing the barriers to learning in order to promote effective participation, enhance individual learning, raise aspirations and achieve full potential.’1

A base for learning mentors

It is vitally important that LMs are provided with a base to work from. Headteachers need to aim to provide an environment that is secure, calming, quiet and most of all permanent. For the LM role to develop, consideration needs to be given to how the role will change over time as the programme becomes more successful and LMs move into new areas such as developing extended school links and providing parenting classes. Specialist information needs to be on hand to provide to staff and parents on issues such as behaviour, bullying and parenting.

The LM’s room needs to be divided into distinctive zones which are specific to the role of the LM. This would include a focus area with a table and a chair, sectioned off with office dividers. These areas are particularly useful for children who arrive in an agitated state and are unable to communicate with staff until they have calmed down. A second area might include a sofa for conversations where counselling and listening are required. An area for discussion or reconciliation is important especially if aspects of ‘restorative justice’ (RJ) are included as part of the LM’s role. If your learning mentors are to support and encourage good behaviour then an area for games such as pool or table tennis as well as board games might be considered. Displays in the LM room might reinforce messages relating to bullying, racism or behaviour. The LM’s room needs to have a catchy name rather than be referred to as the ‘learning mentor’s room’. You might consider holding a competition to name the room.

Who to appoint?

The most important factor in the success of the programme is the selection of the right personnel. Staff suited for the position of LM might come from within the school and have the advantage of knowing many of the children already; however, don’t rule out the possibility of casting the net further afield as you never know who is in the market for such a role.
Due to their role, LMs need to complement each other so that as many eventualities as possible are covered. The whole system would break down and fail if staff urgently needed a learning mentor, yet the school’s only LM was tied up all morning on an RJ conference.

LMs need to be multiskilled and multitalented. Not all existing TAs will make good LMs. Think about which of your staff have the following characteristics:

  • Confidence – the ability to deal with a range of potentially volatile situations such as fights, aggressive and abusive behaviour and anxious parents.
  • Calmness – to show the children that you are not intimidated by them and that they will do what you are asking them to do.
  • Vision – to look at existing problems and concerns in a new light by challenging stereotypes and incorporating new ideas in resolving disputes and conflicts.
  • Flexibility – having the skills needed to change the approach or working conditions/time to suit the needs of the children you are supporting. A staff member who is reluctant to phone a parent at 3.15 to report an incident as ‘they have finished for the day’ will not make a good learning mentor.
  • Innovative – a LM needs to be able to develop and implement new ideas – perhaps developing links with other schools and organisations.

Referral information

Children can be referred to the LMs for a variety of reasons. These might include:

  • poor behaviour
  • low self-esteem
  • standard of work
  • bullying behaviour
  • victims of bullying
  • difficult family circumstances
  • low level of social skills
  • poor concentration or low motivation
  • poor organisational skills.

Learning mentors will meet with a child and set up a programme over a fixed number of weeks that will include targets. This programme will be set up in consultation with the teacher and other staff involved with the child, eg SEN or EAL. Parents will also need to be informed of the programme.

Programmes may involve some or all of the following:

  • 1:1 mentoring
  • group work which focuses on self-esteem, social skills for example
  • observations of the child in class
  • working with the child in class.

The LM will liaise closely with the teacher and if necessary, SENCO, to monitor progress of the pupil.

It is vital for the LM to be provided with information relating to the behaviour incident that they are being asked to investigate. This will need to be completed on a referral form. This information is also vital when it comes to compiling data on behavioural incidents taking place in the school.  This data can also be used to provide a clearer picture of a child’s behaviour to parents and it may also be relevant for gathering information for a child’s IEP or statement. The introduction of LMs will incur additional staff costs, therefore a detailed breakdown of referrals can also be provided for the governing body. Headteachers will also be able

to detect trends and patterns in behaviour that may become part of a teacher’s performance management strategies.

Behaviour support

One of the primary functions of the LM is supporting the class teacher with behaviour. By calling on a LM for support, class teachers are able to return to the teaching of their class without interruption.

Help from LM can be called for in a variety of ways. Some classes may be lucky enough to have a phone in their classroom; others could use a card system where a sensible pupil carries a card to the LM’s room indicating that support is needed.

A skilled LM would then take the pupil away from the classroom to the LM base. They may choose to leave them in the focus area for a short time before investigating the incident and reasons for their behaviour. The discussions may involve more than one child. A decision will then be taken on the consequence for their behaviour in line with the school’s behaviour policy. Eventually the LM will then deal with the reintroduction of the child to the classroom and feedback to the class teacher.

Children can also be supported with anger management and strategies for staying in control.

Restorative justice

Many agencies, organisations and local authorities have now adopted RJ as a procedure for dealing with conflict between both adults and children. RJ is about restoring harm caused, encouraging responsibility and reintegration. Wronged and wrongdoer achieve this together with the facilitators on the sidelines. It is about mending relationships.

Specialist training is available for schools who wish to include RJ as part of a whole-school approach to behaviour. Schools are able to adapt aspects of their RJ training to suit the needs of their school. RJ is a time-consuming process and class teachers may not have the time available to carry out the processes of RJ.

RJ may take the form of mediations with the main people involved, full conferences with others affected, including parents or circle-based activities. The basic ‘rules’ of the sessions are:

  • Everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
  • Everyone waits their turn.

A video on the basics and benefits of RJ is available.2

Drop-ins

As LMs become established in your school the children will become comfortable and feel that the LMs and their base are approachable. The children may bypass their class teacher and come to the LMs directly to discuss issues that are of concern to them. These ‘drop-in’ sessions usually take place during break and lunchtimes.

Developing strategies

Over time, LMs will be able to develop a range of different approaches and strategies to support their work in school. Some of the methods they use may be ‘off the shelf’ programmes available from sources such as Jenny Mosley3, others may be created and tailored to suit the particular needs and circumstances of your school.

Training for learning mentors

LMs cannot be expected to come into their roles and be successful without training. LMs will need to complete the five-day National Learning Mentor Induction Programme.

There are additional opportunities for LMs to complete NVQ level 3 in learning, development and support services with specialist options for LMs. LM coordinators are also able to complete NVQ level 4. As with all NVQs, these are work-based learning and study programmes.
Additional training for LMs is also available. School leaders may want to do this ‘in-house’ using professional training material.4

And finally

In the future your LMs may be able to link up with other LMs in your local area to discuss progress and successes. Networking is of key importance to LMs as they find out more about their role and where specialist support and advice can be obtained.

David Morley is deputy head of a large primary school in Milton Keynes.