“When you have a child who looks forward to the session, and most do, then what you can achieve with them is limitless”

Mentoring as a practice is not new, but mentoring in education is a relatively new phenomenon which is fast gaining popularity with parents. It’s often hard to pin down exactly what a mentor is. Many of those running mentoring companies are often quick to say they are not tutors, who all too often are perceived as a cash-quick, tick-box option that fails to address the full needs of a child.  Instead a mentor sits somewhere between a tutor and a counsellor. A truly brilliant mentor teaches skills which will outlive the course of their relationship with the mentee, such as resilience and self-knowledge. The result of the work may be improved exam results, but improved academic attainment is not the explicit aim.

West London-based Oppidan Education is a pioneering education mentoring agency. Borne of a frustration with traditional tutoring, and perhaps in recognition of a gap in the market, ex-Etonians Walter Kerr and Henry Faber set up Oppidan in response to the prescriptive nature of the tutoring sector. The pair concentrate their focus on ‘soft’ skills, their programmes are based on seven key attributes which they say all high achievers excel in: desire, commitment, self-belief, gameplan, focus, teamwork and resilience. Kerr and Faber believe that children flourish without specific academic goals, that they need space to identify and explore their interests outside of the pressurised school and home environment.

According to Kerr, when the onus is placed upon the child to achieve a goal, it is more likely to be successful. That’s why Oppidan mentors don’t work with children who don’t want to be there. Whereas tutoring is remedial, prescriptive and has an end date, mentoring doesn’t. Oppidan mentors explain to each child they work with that everyone would benefit from a mentor, including adults – something he says children like to hear. I ask him if, in that sense, it’s a little like therapy, “No. We work with a set of distinct characteristics, and although we are not doing past papers with the children, we don’t pretend to be uninvested in their academic success,” says Kerr. He explains that if children are actively involved in a game plan, they’re much more likely to enjoy the mentoring and be proud of it.

So who are these magical mentors, where do they come from? Oppidan mentors aren’t exclusively Oxbridge graduates, although Kerr admits many are. “We live in a gig economy, people like having more than one job. Our turnover, however, is very low. One of the criteria for working is that they already have a job – otherwise they leave the minute they gain full-time employment. Oppidan mentors are old enough to be an authoritative figure but young enough for the child to associate with.” Amazingly he tells me they accept just one in seven applicants. “The selection process is personality-driven, and the training is rigorous – mentors have at least two interviews and take part in two training days. And we are invested in their professional development, the skills mentors hone are easily transferable.”

The biggest challenge for educational mentoring companies is, unsurprisingly, parents’ expectations. And according to Oppidan it’s the transformation of children’s self-expectation which is most rewarding, “When you have a child who looks forward to the session, and most do, then what you can achieve with them is limitless.”

While girls in particular suffer from perfectionism, an emerging culture of near constant personal-improvement has led to an entire cohort of stressed-out children. Some are stretched between yoga on Mondays, after-school art on Tuesdays, a nutritionist on Wednesdays, and so on. Is it possible that adding yet another after-school activity, even if it is mentoring, might just add to the noise? Charis Elphinstone the founder of Ludowide, a mentoring agency, says otherwise: “Our mentors don’t turn up laden with past papers. They might meet the child in an art gallery, or go swimming or for a walk in the park.” Ludowide mentors seek to establish a ‘safe space’ in which they can encourage children to talk about how they feel. “We hone in on the opportunities afforded by the unique nature of mentor/mentee relationship.”

Elphinstone started out as a private tutor herself and found parents’ expectations baffling, “They want you to achieve specific academic goals – usually getting their children through exams with good results, or into a specific school. But the children are coming home from school exhausted, and they’re not getting the downtime they need.” She says that falling behind at school is usually a symptom of a deeper problem. “Parents can often overlook the underlying cause of a child dragging their heels in an educational setting.” It can take time to shift parents’ expectations, so the company ‘coaches’ them too. “We arrange a fortnightly session for the mentor and the parents. The mentor’s role in those conversations is to provide insight without simply relaying everything the child had said in their sessions. “Trust is key,” Charis says, “but it’s important for parents to be kept in the loop.” (Especially when they’re paying £60 an hour for the service).

Ludowise is the second arm of Charis’ organisation. It’s the name of an impressive team of academics researching the world’s best practice in developmental psychology. They’re building an archive of in-depth case studies, showcasing how Ludowide has helped children and their families. The mentors work on the basis of these case studies, the mentors’ training is also focused on how to sense when it is and, importantly, when it is not the right time to push a child academically. “The Ludowise team are examining where the recent rise in anxiety has come from. Of course we recognise the need for professional help, but we look at prevention rather than intervention, and that’s where we’re different from other companies,” says Elphinstone.

Whether anxiety is on the rise, or conversations surrounding it are becoming more commonplace, it seems every child would benefit from a mentor. If parents can be persuaded that supporting children holistically by instilling self-belief and confidence will ultimately lead to longer-lasting success than traditional tutoring, then the educational mentoring arena is set to grow exponentially.  

Learn more about Oppidan here

Learn more about Ludowide here