Supporting local schools
Over the years I have been working with my local church, there is one project more than any other which has gathered momentum and expanded, perhaps beyond what we hoped when it began. That is the work we do providing mentoring support to pupils and students in our local schools. Starting small, with one or two of our leaders building links with schools, we now run a team of mentors, all of whom are involved working one to one with pupils who are in need, or who have hit crisis point in their home or school life.
The history …
Our interest in mentoring in schools began many years ago when members of our leadership team started to be called in regularly to help with situations developing in local schools. We had always been involved in working with local schools and businesses, but we were seeing a rise in demand for help, support and counselling. As a result we began to provide regular pastoral support to a few local secondary schools. Our senior pastor became the pastoral mentor to two of these schools and a working relationship began. As time - and demand - moved on, some of our other staff became involved - our youth workers for example.
It was clear that there was a growing need for young people in our schools, and as a result our team gradually expanded, until there were 4 people involved, and we were working in all 3 of our local secondary schools. We were kept very busy - with needs ranging from students at risk of exclusion through to those experiencing real emotional problems and struggling with issues like self harm, depression and anxiety. Gradually the work we did developed, and we moved towards a more professional model, looking at how we could improve our own systems, and the qualifications of people on our team, so that we could provide the best possible support. We were also building links with the multidisciplinary teams so often involved in supporting students locally - the police, CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services), social services and other groups such as ESTMA (Educational Support Team for Medical Absence).
What we found as we worked with more and more students was that our team seemed to have a unique opportunity to offer support to the students. We weren't teachers - and we were free from some of the constraints that the teachers had to work to. We weren't doctors, or police, or any of the other professionals they might be used to meeting. We weren't parents either - and this holds an obvious advantage when working with frustrated young people! In fact, our coming in without a terribly 'formal' role or job title seemed to hold a powerful message. Students were bowled over that we were coming in 'just' to see them - that we had no agenda other than offering them a listening ear and some support. I remember talking to one student I met with who had complex needs. She saw a whole battery of people - doctors, psychologists, various teachers etc. She was trying to understand who I was and why she was now being sent to see me. Suddenly it dawned on her 'Are you here just to listen to me?!' she asked. I confirmed that this was the case. A stunned silence followed (though not for long!). 'I don't think anyone's ever done that before,' she explained.
Perhaps the biggest change to our work in schools came a couple of years ago. We were only too aware that more often than not we were working with students in secondary school where problems had existed since well before they came to the school. Meanwhile heads in local primary schools were talking to us about issues they were facing with younger pupils who were struggling and who clearly needed extra support. With teachers pushed to the limit already, very few schools had members of staff who could offer that one to one time. Eventually we were approached and asked if we would consider extending our service to provide support to a group of local primary schools. Funding had been secured and the need was very much there. And so our formal mentoring service began.
The project now
Once we agreed to look into offering support to primary schools, the scheme was always going to need to expand. We also began to operate to more formal procedures and contracts, and the need to attain the professional standards we had always aimed at became even more acute. After some pretty rapid development, we now run a team of 14, who work in the various different schools falling within our catchment (which includes around 24 schools). These people work as 'expert mentors.' What that means is each person on our team holds some kind of previous professional qualification and/or experience relevant to the work - this includes trained counsellors as well as those from other professions like social work or the NHS - as well as being required to complete an accredited training course in mentoring - we work in conjunction with Oasis, and their course 'mentoring through intentional relationships.' There are, of course additional safeguarding checks which we operate as part of safe practice - all team members are interviewed, provide references and undergo full crb checks. All have to agree to the various formal procedures we put into place - keeping safe and confidential records, providing regular updates to the schools on the children they working with, and attending regular team meetings as well as individual supervision. All also must attend regular local county courses in child protection.
Of course such a team doesn't run itself! We give a significant amount of paid staff hours to overseeing this work - from those involved in running the teams and coordinating referrals through to a dedicated member of admin staff who helps us to keep up with the considerable admin demands of the work and other 'behind the scenes' people overseeing things like our accounts, or offering guidance and prayer support. So far in every year we have been expanding, we have had to take on 2 additional members of staff, part time, to meet the demands of the work. Its rewarding work though - and all creates a fantastic team to be part of.
I think the most encouraging thing about this scheme - particularly having been involved in supporting various people before - is the real difference it makes. We often work in complex situations, where many other professionals are involved. But something about the strength of our role means that children seem to find it easier to confide in our mentors, and to work with them to see real change. Our team work on a whole range of issues - from attention, challenging behaviour or communication difficulties with younger children (we accept referrals from Reception age, and have some specialised team members working with this agegroup using play based approaches), through to some of the more serious issues that can present in later primary years and senior school - such as self harm, suicidal behaviour, depression and anxiety issues. During the last academic year our team spent over 1000 hours in one to one mentoring support with local children and young people. Our aim is always to coordinate care for children and young people to ensure that none of them ‘slip through the net’, and we're able to work with the flexibility to make that happen.
Its worth being clear that none of our work involves anything directly linked to our faith. We do not preach, teach or try to push our own faith perspective on anyone we work with - whatever their age or background. Indeed we work with children of all faith backgrounds and operate a clear equal opportunities policy. No mentor who was coming to the work hoping to do that would be allowed to proceed. Our team work as profesionals in a secular world. Having said that, of course they do all come from a strong faith motivation. They pray for and care about the children they work with. All have been known to our church for a long time and bring a faith based maturity to the role as well as their other skills.
Our work has been extremely well blessed in that since we have started, there has always been adequate funding to ensure its survival. However, recent budget cuts have meant funding has been more of a challenge - but we've always had the funds we need so far an we're confident God will continue to provide for the work we need to do. It has to be noted, however, that the church has massively supported the work, and that without that support we wouldn't have been able to grow in the way we have. From people paying for their own training, through to support for admin and practical costs - we are extremely grateful for the support we have had - and continue to have - from the church.
Another really rewarding part of working with this scheme is the chance to build great friendships with some other fantastic people working in our local area. Many of the school heads are real heroes, devoting extra time and energy to those in need in their schools; people from the local partnership are also valued friends, and show real devotion and genuine care for the often challenging families they work with. We really enjoy being able to support those people as we work, and it is those partnerships which give the scheme its strength. Whenever one of our mentors goes into a school, they do so as an extension of the support that school can offer. We always work with the school rather than as a separate agency, and we really appreciate the nature of that mutual support and working practice.
The expansion of this scheme over the last few years has been rapid and rewarding. To us this is one of the most important ministries we run in the church - and we love it. We are looking at ways we can develop the work, and perhaps reach more children, or particularly work to prevent serious problems developing, intervening before they develop as far. Part of the work will always be thinking about how it can develop, and become even more effective. We're also constantly building new relationships - for example with the education resource centres who work with children who have been excluded from local schools, or with local groups providing support for families around issues like ADHD, Autistic Spectrum diagnoses, and other common issues.
What's great about this work though is that the vision for the future isn't just held by one or two people - it is something shared by the entire team. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing young people we have supported along their journey growing in age and confidence and then leaving school with the ability to fulfil their potential, and all of us who work in the team feel it is a privilege to be involved. Ultimately it is that passion which drives the work we do. Whatever the future brings, we know that whilst there are still children and young people in need, we'll be there!