Kids need 'agents' not just mentors - RSA

Kids need 'agents' not just mentors

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  • Education
  • Adolescence
  • Curriculum
  • Youth engagement

Mentoring for kids from troubled or deprived backgrounds has been a popular practice for many years now. A number of organisations and many individuals dedicate lots of time and resources to mentoring. Politicians also like mentoring.  Boris Johnson, for example, has been a big supporter (to his own political cost) of Ray Lewis who evangelises for the benefits of mentoring for black youngsters.

A great deal of mentoring focuses on the transition from study or unemployment into work and then progress at work. This emphasis is, of course, based on the observations that making a success of this transition is central to making a success of life and that many young people (particularly those from deprived backgrounds) find the transition difficult.

However, I am starting to wonder whether the notion of a mentor needs expanding or augmenting with a different role.

CIPD defines mentoring as "development techniques based on the use of one-to-one discussions to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work performance". This goes to the heart of a problem which is that much research (including the RSA's own) shows that what kids from poorer backgrounds lack is not simply skills, knowledge or performance. To put it bluntly they also lack connections.

Our work with FE students earlier this year found that students from poorer backgrounds lacked a network of people in work who could help them progress. Worryingly, many did not understand the importance of such a network. In fact, there was a general view that using your contacts to get ahead was in some way "cheating".

So while mentors can do a very important job,  there seems to be an imperative to think about how individuals need not only to share their knowledge and skills but also their 'social capital'. What might this mean?

Maybe we could start by talking increasingly about individuals acting as 'agents' as well as mentors. That would mean they actively represent a young person in their world: arranging introductions, asking friends or colleagues to offer advice, making enquiries about internships or even jobs. In effect, doing all the things that an aspiring middle class student aiming for a career in law might expect of their aunt who works for a big solicitor in the City. Or getting the sort of help a talented pupil taking science A-levels with an eye on a medical career receives from a senior consultant who just happens to be their Dad.

Developing this agent role poses various challenges. Matching the right potential 'agent' to the young person would be labour intensive because there would need to be a good fit between the role of the former and the aspirations of the latter. More importantly, 'agents' would need to be confident that the person they are 'representing' will not damage their credibility with colleagues and friends by failing to turn up for meetings or making an effort to perform well. This might mean, in some cases, that more traditional mentoring will have to take place before an agent gets active.

So it would not always be straightforward or easy but it seems to me the potential to bring about real change could be great. The idea, for example, of a professional institute with loads of social capital (such as one of the Royal Colleges or Chartered Institutes) actively encouraging and supporting its members to act as agents on behalf of kids, without capital but the ambition to work in a particular profession, seems particularly powerful to me.

Admittedly, it's an idea that would require some serious trialling and fine-tuning. My hope is the RSA might get the opportunity as we develop projects and initiatives around our broader notion of 'social capital sharing'.

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