When students take on the role of teacher, locations and partners for learning expand along exciting avenues – classrooms, dining hall, playground, sitting rooms and bedrooms linked by phone, text and e-forums. The possibilities for learning relationships multiply. Students engage with their peers in ways that adults can’t, and tapping into this breaks down barriers, motivates and stimulates emotional connections that allow learning to take place.

We have trained our students, past and present, to mentor their peers in specific subjects. These youngsters possess an innate ability to connect with, and engage, other students; all we did was to empower them with an enhanced vocabulary to allow richer, deeper learning conversations to take place. Giving mentors and mentees space to experiment with different approaches to learning revealed a depth of interest and understanding that we knew could be moulded into extremely effective learning experiences.

The Learning Futures programme defines mentoring as ‘purposeful and sustained interpersonal support for an individual with the goal of supporting them to be more successful personally or academically’. Although this definition more or less encapsulates what we are doing at Noadswood School, it does provoke two important considerations.

Firstly, we are using peer mentoring as a means to develop learning and, in this way, the focus of our peer mentoring programme is quite different to the more commonly encountered pastorally focused programmes.

The second point concerns the distinction between ‘mentoring’ and ‘coaching’ and the fact that as we, as a school, have realised the power of coaching as a pedagogy of engagement, we are equipping our peer mentors with the skills required to coach.

What does learning-focused peer mentoring look like?
Between a rendition of Jump Around (House of Pain), lots of Jammie Dodgers munching and a few sniggers at our head of history’s rapping zone on the history department’s area of the VLE, there were some extremely engaged students at this afternoon’s subject-based peer mentoring session. Assessing learning and engagement on the basis of appearance alone can sometimes be difficult, but almost certainly not in this instance.

Our history department had peer mentoring going on in two rooms today. In both we had our Year 12 mentors working either individually or in pairs with small groups of four or five Year 10 and 11 students. The mentors are very naturally doing an impressive job of creating a stimulating, informal and fun atmosphere for learning. The younger students are freely asking and answering questions and, most importantly, they are smiling and enjoying it. All 20 mentees attended voluntarily (some following a little coercion!); we had 40 remaining after school in science last week. There is no doubt that these students want to be here and are gaining from the experience. Learning is undoubtedly being enhanced by emotional stimulation and the mentees are telling us that this learning is sticking…

‘I think it’s been good so far, they [the mentors] have helped me to understand all the things we have covered. And now I feel more confident but I will keep on revising.’

‘I reckon it helps because we go over all the areas I am shady on. It is helping build my confidence for the test.’

Rich, reciprocal learning relationships have developed that continue beyond the confines of the classroom via online forums. Mentors and mentees in history, for example, are discussing approaches to enquiry-based coursework via a discussion forum on the school’s VLE. The history area of our VLE, in its entirety, was bombarded by an impressive 6,000 hits in a recent three-week period; nearly 300 of these involved visits to the peer mentoring forum.

Some of the mentors are our ex-students who we have invited back to the school from local colleges. These mentors bring with them new experiences of life beyond Noadswood, along with an air of confidence and awe that appeals to our younger children. And, as we expected, the programme is also building the skills and confidence of the mentors…

‘This experience has made me become more organised. I am already a confident person, but mentoring is helping me channel it into something productive like talking and helping a group of children.’

‘It has made me think about how I revise and how I can break it down simply. It has also made me think about different learning techniques and how I can incorporate these. It has also made me reflect on what I found helpful and to use this to help teach others.’

If this is engagement we really want more of it, in more of our subject areas.

Evidence of impact on learning and achievement
The following observations are extracts from the tracking of two Year 11 students who were mentored in GCSE history by a group of four Year 12 mentors.

Student A:
Pre-mentoring: Student A working at E grade standard
Teacher comments:
‘Little understanding of the topics. When she was asked to contribute to class she refused.’
Following one term of weekly mentoring meetings:
Student A attaining C grades; her teacher comments that ‘she contributes freely to class and that she is now meeting deadlines.’

Student B:
Pre-mentoring: Student B working at C grade standard
Teacher comments: ‘She does contribute to class but does very little work and is often behind on deadlines.’
Following one term of weekly mentoring meetings: Student B attaining A grades; her teacher comments that ‘she contributes in class, has confidence and wants to succeed.’

Identifying robust and reliable ways to measure impact on learning of our peer mentoring programme has been difficult. So far evaluation has generally relied on qualitative verbal feedback from mentors, mentees and teachers as well as records of attainment measures as exemplified above. Our next step is to make greater use of recording changes in the students’ ELLI learning profiles (see box, below) during the mentoring process. This should allow us to assess with more rigour the ways in which mentoring influences each of the seven dimensions of learning identified by the ELLI research.

What works in learning-focused peer mentoring?

We have evidence to show that peer mentoring can have a significant positive effect on learning when:

  • teachers are willing to relinquish control
  • The most effective learning takes place when the student mentors work as co-constructors in the design of the mentoring programme and its contents, and take the lead as facilitators of the learning experience. The strength of peer mentoring lies in the innate ability of the peer mentors to form engaging learning relationships with their mentees and, for this to happen, mentors must be placed firmly at the centre of the programme and take ownership of it.
  • peer mentors receive high quality training in two key areas
  • Firstly, mentors and mentees must share a common learning vocabulary for the most effective learning conversations to take place. During the early stages of programme development we realised that although our students generally had a sound knowledge of their personal learning preferences and what they needed to do to become better learners, they lacked the terminology required to express this knowledge in a universally recognised code that could be accessed by others. Schools generally rely on simple models of learning such as the 5Rs delivered through Learning to Learn curricula to make strides towards increasing metacognative understanding. However, we found that we needed to go further than this by explicitly developing metaphors for the terminology associated with a very well researched learning model developed by the University of Bristol. Guy Claxton and Patricia Broadfoot began the research that led to the creation of the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI), a learning diagnostic tool that is designed to establish how learners perceive themselves in relation to seven dimensions of learning power (see Deakin Crick, Broadfoot and Claxton, 2004, ‘Developing An Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory’, Assessment in Education, 2004, 11(3), 248-272 ). Our mentees’ individual ELLI learning profiles are now increasingly used to personalise learning conversations.
  • Secondly, we have started to develop our mentors’ coaching skills. Good mentoring relies on mentors being able to form productive learning relationships with their mentees and the skills required to be an effective coach are central to interdependent learning. A development priority is to expand training for our students in coaching.
  • learning is allowed to continue beyond the confines of the school
  • For peer mentoring to be really effective, mechanisms should be put into place to allow learning relationships to flourish beyond the face-to-face mentoring meetings. A peer mentoring discussion forum on the school’s VLE was established by members of staff and is moderated by subject teachers; however, the direction of discussion is led by the students. The online forum has been very successful and is well used because the quality of the support offered by the mentors provides mentees with a strong reason to logon. Our VLE additionally has a dedicated area that students and teachers can use to exchange a range of learning resources from model exam answers to films for learning.
  • teachers intervene to assist in scheduling regular meetings between mentors and mentees; meet regularly with the mentors to discuss the content of the mentoring meetings; and help mentors to consider the balance between addressing content and skills
  • The idea of ‘teacher as facilitator’ is important to the success of the peer mentoring programme.

Finally, in the same way that those with the best degrees do not necessarily make the best teachers, the most effective peer mentors are not always high-achieving students. Our best mentors are the students who are most able to form constructive, engaging relationships with groups of mentees. It is for this reason that it has become clear to us that it is by developing coaching skills, with their focus on intrapersonal and interpersonal effectiveness, that we will increase the impact of our peer mentors.

Future developments and final considerations Our next steps include developing a model of Coaching for Learning that we will use to reinforce our peer mentoring programme by building the ability of the mentors to foster effective learning relationships with their mentees. We will also continue to build a shared vocabulary for learning across the school as we know that this leads to a common understanding between mentor and mentee and will enhance the effectiveness of the conversations taking place.

Finally, some thoughts for anyone considering peer mentoring or planning a learning-focused peer mentoring programme.

  • Students are often the largest untapped learning resource in a school.
  • How can we use mentoring to develop learning? This question prompted our strategy to place peer mentoring firmly in the domain of our subject areas as a means of developing learning.
  • How can we make mentoring available every day, in school and beyond school?
  • Peer mentoring is metacognitive and this is why it is potentially a very powerful mechanism for building the learning of both mentor and mentee.
  • Peer mentoring instils a sense of responsibility among students for each others’ success, thereby instigating a significant culture shift in most contexts.

Tim Ennion is assistant headteacher, Noadswood School

Eddie Stephenson is learning development coordinator, Noadswood School