How children go onto do later in life isn’t just a factor of whether they develop crucial basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic – or even how many GCSEs or A levels they get. Just as important is whether they develop the outlook or ‘character’ that helps them get on; characteristics like motivation, the ability to stick at a task, discipline and aspiration.
Family is the most important influence on these. But developing strong relationships with other adults – for example, at school or in the community – can help to partly offset the impact of growing up without positive role models at home.
Labour should consider adopting a national mentoring programme for its next manifesto. Evidence from the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentoring scheme in theUnited States– now running in 12 countries – suggests that if done right, giving at-risk children and young people the opportunity to build long-term relationships with adult mentors in their local community can significantly help. One evaluation showed that after 18 months of mentoring, young people were over 50 per cent less likely to skip school and 46 per cent less likely to begin using drugs.
But if a mentoring programme was going to work there are several things it would need to incorporate. First, the evidence on adult-child mentoring programmes is mixed – some schemes have been found to have little or no impact and poorly run programmes can even do harm.
What makes BBBS so effective? It uses psychologists to match mentors and mentees, who also provide training and ongoing support to mentors. Mentors are asked to make a significant time commitment for at least a year. The programme is targeted at at-risk children and young people, including those living in poverty and in single-parent homes, and parents have to be signed up. These factors make BBBS more expensive than many mentoring programmes (around £1000 per child per year) but rigorous cost-benefit analysis has shown it generates four times this in return for taxpayers.
The second important feature is that BBBS has grown out of civil society, partly funded by business, and is run on a federated model like the Scouts or Guides. But local chapters have to be faithful to the features of the programme that make it so effective. Were a Labour government to pilot such a mentoring programme over here, it should be contracted out to a range of providers such as charities and social enterprises rather than run as a top-down programme; so long as they stick to what makes the scheme successful.
A national mentoring programme would be a symbol of the relationship between the state and society that Labour wants to see: neither big-state solutions nor a ’big society’ style rollback of the state, but a genuine partnership between state and civil society.
Sonia Sodha is Head of Policy and Strategy at the Social Research Unit and writes in a personal capacity.
This article was originally published in the Fabian Society’s Summer edition of the Fabian Review. It forms part of the Fabian Society’s Next State project. We’ll be publishing other articles from the series this week.