Uxbridge High School has embarked on an ambitious programme to mentor every student by involving every member of staff, from the receptionist to the headteacher. Judith Barton charts its progress.
In 2003, just 30 per cent of students at Uxbridge High School were achieving five A*-C at GCSE. By 2009 that percentage had risen to 70. As all leaders will recognise, that change does not happen by chance.
Uxbridge is a 11-19 comprehensive and specialist technology college which serves a culturally diverse community with some significant social deprivation and higher than average pupil mobility. Some 45 per cent of students are from an ethnic minority background and a significant proportion speak English as a second language.
Mentoring was first introduced to help personalise the support given to students. Aimed at improving performance, developing independent advice and guidance, sharing knowledge and strengthening career development, the programme also supported the whole school focus of improving behaviour and attendance.
Initially, our mentoring programme targeted year 11 students who were C/D borderline. Students were monitored over a two-week period and competed with each other in a Champions' League to see who could make the most progress over a period of time.
While this was successful, some year 11s felt disappointed that they were not included. Why should all students not receive the same degree of support as those on the C/D borderline?
Expansion of support
With this in mind, the mentoring support was expanded and the leadership team, together with non-teaching guidance leaders and advanced skills teachers (ASTs), all became mentors.
All year 11 students now receive regular mentoring during their citizenship lessons from staff, including the headteacher. They meet once a month in groups of three or four to discuss coursework, exam targets, revision techniques and to share impediments to success. There are further progress checks once a month so, in effect, they are being monitored every fortnight. Each group takes on its own personality, depending upon the challenges facing them at the time.
Some staff encourage healthy eating to help students stay alert when revising. Shariffah Bogere, year 11, said: "My mentor makes us take a bottle of water and a banana to our sessions. She really believes it helps us to concentrate for longer. I have to say I do drink more water now just in case she's right!"
Another deputy head encourages more physical exercise to help develop students' concentration, focus and self-awareness and maintain a balanced lifestyle. Rebecca Daines, also year 11, said: "I feel that I can rely on my mentor to help me with any problems and issues I have and I know I can speak to them with full confidence and get support for any problems I face."
Secure in the knowledge that mentoring was a successful tool in promoting a positive ethos, as well as a potential vehicle for improving results, we have embarked upon an ambitious project to mentor every student by using every member of staff in the school.
A discussion of the risks highlighted the very real need to train all staff. This became the focus of our annual teaching and learning conference. Workshops, led by senior leaders, were held on subjects like safeguarding, including elements of role play and a session entitled 'How to like all students'.
Drawing on the service culture in America, staff were encouraged to think in terms of nothing being too much to ask. All staff have been taught to set targets in the same way as teachers by using data and to share good practice with each other.
Two weeks are set aside every term for staff to meet with their mentees and, during that period, there is a whole-school focus on mentoring. Although cautious at first, staff did take to the programme readily, and were eager to trial what they had learnt. Gradually, the benefits have become apparent and they are significant.
Both the students and the staff began to enjoy their time together and the relationships definitely extend beyond the time allocated for mentoring.
"I had some initial reservations when I found I was to mentor four year 10 students," said Melanie Kindley-Deeks, responsible for work-related learning. "As a non-teaching member of staff I was worried that I did not have the relevant skills. However, through training I realised that as an adult with life skills I had a lot to offer."
Carol Budd, school receptionist, said: "It is the ability to act as an intermediary for the students that works so well. I am neither parent, nor teacher, so they tell me things that concern them and I am able to negotiate such things as extended homework deadlines if necessary."
This view is endorsed by student Mhaventhan Arunthavalingam: "I have a mentor who helps me out in school if I have any problems. She is always there for me and is very supportive."
We subsequently decided to extend the programme with student mentors. Year 6 pupils are now mentored by year 10s, both prior to coming to the school and when they move in to year 7.
Year 10 students write to their mentees before induction day and then meet them when they come in for the day. Tutor groups have mentors attached to them to escort the students between lessons for the first week of term.
It is the supportive element that drew Jake Lamport, year 10, into mentoring: "I volunteered to be a mentor (for year 7 pupils) as I wanted to make sure they settled into school at the start of their first year as it can be a big step from a primary school to a secondary school."
A year 7 pupil who has been mentored by an older student says: "It is much better to have a student mentor. I know where to find him at break and lunchtime if I need someone to talk to. It is easier than speaking to a teacher."
Mentoring for adults
The final piece of the jigsaw is mentoring for staff. New staff, newly qualified teachers (NQTs), and Teach First recruits receive a very thorough induction throughout their first year. But it became evident that staff needed support beyond then, so all staff now have a mentor.
This includes the senior leadership team. For example, as a deputy I am mentored by our head but, as a member of Hillingdon's Pool of Talent, I am also mentored by the headteacher at one of our neighbouring schools. The head has two external mentors plus a support network through the National College.
We run an extremely successful and popular residential course at the start of the mentoring programme, which entices staff to participate. They then undertake some student-focused research which results in workshops for all staff on training days.
There is also dedicated mentoring for those aspiring to leadership roles. Staff can choose to join the middle and aspiring leaders group when they feel ready, which focuses on succession planning and leadership skills.
Having been involved from the beginning with Future Leaders, the scheme to encourage aspiring heads to work in challenging urban schools, we also have adopted a programme of in-school internships and associate headteachers to enable colleagues to sample life as a senior leader.
Raising the profile of good staff and having systems of early recognition for colleagues who wish to progress in their careers has become one of the school's unique selling points. Our staff surveys tell us that staff regularly recommend our school to friends as a good place to work.
Since the mentoring programme began, we have not only improved our personalised learning and GCSE results but also cut persistent non-attendance so our attendance rate is up to 95.1 per cent. Behavioural incidents in 2009-10 so far are a third of what they were in 2008-09.
There is also an improved level of confidence among all adults. We have developed a collegiate staff and visitors always comment on how friendly the school is and, in particular, the clear sense of direction and purpose.
We do it by being inclusive, valuing our whole school population and by working hard. But nothing about our mentoring programme is so unique that it could not be adopted by any school. The benefits far outweigh any challenges and the overall result is one of a great sense of satisfaction for all concerned.
Judith Barton is deputy head of Uxbridge High School, west London.
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